Burial Rites is the fictionalized account of a real woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who on 12 January, 1830, became the last individual to be executed in Iceland. The prisoner and convicted murderess was placed in the home of local official Jón Jónsson while awaiting her fate. The novel follows her days as she works alongside Jónsson and his family and talks with Tóti, the young assistant priest who is charged with returning her to God's grace. Slowly her story emerges to contradict and complicate the tales told about her and her role in the violent murder of her former master.
Hannah Kent's ten years of research produced this Kent "speculative biography," which she describes as her "dark love letter to Iceland." It is nuanced and evocative, claustrophobic and melancholy, and utterly engrossing. Kent draws an intimate portrait of Icelandic culture of the early nineteenth century (including not only the "usual suspects" such as the Sagas and Christianity and the clash between education and superstition, but also well-informed insights on the plight of orphans and paupers and servants, and the power of rumor and speculation in a reputation-based society). The psychological depth and elegant prose of this work are impressive (as is Morven Christie's expert narration). I will be looking for more from Kent.
During her oral exams for Ph.D. candidacy at Harvard, Connie's advisor asks her the following about her understanding of the colonial American witch trials: "Have you not considered the distinct possibility that the accused were simply guilty of witchcraft?" Here lies the major premise of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.
No, Connie hadn't considered this possibility, and she doesn't take it seriously when Professor Chilton raises it. After passing her orals, Connie divides her summer between clearing out her grandmother's decrepit home in preparation for selling the place and trying to find an avenue of research for her dissertation proposal. Both endeavors meet when she realizes she may have a lead on a previously unmined primary source: a "recipe" book owned by one of the forgotten prosecuted "witches" from the Salem witch trials. Most of the novel follows Connie's search in 1991, but this narrative is broken up and complemented by extended interludes set during the colonial witch trials.
Howe's strength rests in description. Her portraits of colonial and contemporary Massachusetts bring the settings to life and make them central characters in her story. The fact that Howe herself is the descendant of Elizabeth Proctor (who survived the Salem witch trials) and Elizabeth Howe (who did not) also adds depth and texture to this intergenerational tale.
As a Ph.D. in history myself, I found much of Connie's experience as a graduate student to be familiar. The time frame for her research is wildly condensed from "real life," but Howe offers an explanation for Connie's advisor's crazed expectations. More than a few times I thought that writing this novel must have offered cathartic moments in exorcising Howe's own graduate school experience.
That said, Connie seems a naive, clueless, and inexperienced in her chosen field of study and even basic research methods, and I wasn't quite sure how she'd made it to candidacy at all. A third of the way into the novel I guessed exactly how the rest of the story would unfold, and I ended up being right on every count. This book therefore fails as a procedural story or a mystery. Its enjoyment lies in its sense of mood and atmosphere, as well as the strong connections it underscores between the past and the present, place and memory, history and identity.
Katherine Kellgren's narration was an obstacle to enjoying this book, especially the voice she used for Professor Chilton, which was such an outrageous caricature that it belonged in a farcical comedy. It's difficult to take a tension-filled scene of peril seriously when the narrator's reading makes you want to laugh.
I went to these lectures in order to brush up on my knowledge of London's history (which varies depending on the era from "rather expert" to "rather sketchy") and gain new perspectives on the "Cool Britannia" phenomenon today, and this fit the bill. Robert Bucholz offers an interdisciplinary and broad history of the city drawing from court history, literature, sociology, urban planning, economics, and other approaches. He manages to cover a great deal in a short time, complete with entertaining asides and corny humor. I especially appreciated his guided tours of the city during different stages of its life (Chaucer's time, Shakespeare's time, Samuel Pepys's time, Dickens's time, and "Millennial London"), which provided very useful comparisons and contrasts. A work this brief covering such a time span cannot be all things to all people, but for someone already familiar with the history and wanting a refresher, or someone wholly new to the history and seeking an introduction, this is an ideal resource.
The individual lectures are as follows:
1. There's No Place like London
2. The Rise and Fall of Roman Londinium
3. Medieval London's Thousand-Year Climb
4. Economic Life in Chaucer's London
5. Politics and Religion in Chaucer's London
6. London Embraces the Early Tudors
7. Elizabeth I and London as a Stage
8. Life in Shakespeare's London—East
9. Life in Shakespeare's London—West
10. London Rejects the Early Stuarts
11. Life in Samuel Pepys's 17th-Century London
12. Plague and Fire
13. London Rises Again—As an Imperial Capital
14. Johnson's London—All That Life Can Afford
15. The Underside of 18th-Century London
16. London Confronts Its Problems
17. Life in Dickens's London
18. Two Windows into Victorian London
19. Questions Postponed and the Great War
20. London's Interwar Expansion and Diversions
21. The Blitz—The Greatest Target in the World
22. Postwar London Returns to Life
23. The Varied Winds of Change
24. Millennial London—How Do You Like It?
It's hard to rate this novel, because it does many things.
For one, it's a YA fish-out-of-water tale about a small-town Louisiana girl who suddenly finds herself in a boarding school in London. As a glimpse of London life, popular culture, and history through an American lens, it's a very successful and often laugh-out-loud funny tale.
The novel is also a Jack-the-Ripper thriller about a copycat murderer who uses the original Ripper slayings as inspiration for "tribute" killings, with some clever and chilling contemporary updates to the 1888 story. This aspect of the novel, with its atmospheric descriptions and creepy depiction of the morbidly fascinated public at large does work on its own, although it's somewhat jarring next to the more upbeat schooldays story.
But wait, there's more! This book also serves up a paranormal coming-of-age and coming-into-your-powers narrative about ghosts (or shades), those who see them, and the secret police who are in charge of cases involving them. (Think of the Torchwood group dedicated to ghosts. I couldn't unsee Torchwood throughout this section of the novel.) In some ways the novel hangs together - thank heavens Maureen Johnson confined herself to the copycat killer and didn't go back to the mystery of the original Ripper - but in some ways this combination felt overly ambitious, as if everything but the kitchen sink had been thrown into the mix.
Johnson telegraphed at least three of the intended "big reveals" far in advance, so the mystery angle of the book fell flat. The less said about the teen romantic scenes, the better. In addition, I normally really enjoy Nicola Barber's narrations, but her varied attempts at a Louisiana drawl were so outrageously bad that they kept shocking me out of the story. Just dreadful.
I don't think I'll be following up on more of this series, but I'm not sorry I listened to the novel. Perhaps those who enjoy paranormal YA works will enjoy it more than I did. I listened to it for the Ripper connection primarily, and there were enough innovations there to make this worth my while.
It seems remarkable that there's never been a biography dedicated to Frederick Abberline, Chief Inspector for the Metropolitan Police and arguably the most famous of the professionals involved in the Autumn of Terror's search for Jack the Ripper - remarkable, that is, until one realizes just how much information we don't know about the man. I applaud M.J. Trow's attempt to put Abberline's life and work (both Ripper and non-Ripper related) into a larger context. I hope this is a starting point from which others may launch new research. I certainly learned a great deal about Abberline's other cases, and I was pleased to hear the Ripper murders put into a different perspective.
I especially appreciated how Trow used popular perceptions of Abberline and police officer George Godley, such as their portrayals by Michael Caine and Lewis Collins in Jack the Ripper (1988) and Johnny Depp and Robbie Coltrane in From Hell (2001), as framing devices for his deeper explorations into historical reality. (I only wish he had engaged with the portrayal of Abberline and Edmund Reid in the current Ripper Street from 2012-present, as well, although this book's publication date would have made that a very tight squeeze.)
This is not a flawless study, but it is both useful and interesting to those fascinated by the history of law enforcement, detection, and/or the Autumn of Terror. It has the sense of a "good starting place" about it, and I hope it will inspire more exhaustive research along these same lines. Solid narration.
This was a thoroughly satisfying sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling, and I'm looking forward to more in this series. As with the first novel, J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith) gives readers a new perspective on a world she knows well: in this case, the publishing industry. When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in Cormoran Strike to track him down and send him home. Of course, all is not as it seems, and ultimately Strike must investigate Quine's gruesome, grisly murder -- which Quine himself apparently described in detail in his latest unpublished manuscript, a text which also cruelly attacks almost everyone he knows (and thus offers many motives for murder). The mystery itself is expertly constructed, well paced, and clever.
Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin both grow as individuals and a team. One mystery from the first novel is solved -- that is, what Strike's ex-fiancee Charlotte did that was truly unforgivable enough to break up their sixteen-year on-and-off-again relationship -- while another is introduced regarding Robin's personal history. Both characters remain compellingly three-dimensional. Strike's defense of Mrs. Quine and both characters' interactions with the Quines' developmentally disabled daughter Orlando remind readers why these flawed individuals are nonetheless the "heroes" of the tale. Cormoran's younger half-brother Al also puts Strike in a new perspective, and I hope we'll see more of him. London is very much a character in its own right, as well, and Rowling paints its portrait in beautiful detail.
This novel has none of the symptoms of second-book symptom. Rowling knows how to draw characters, plot mysteries, and evoke settings, and all three talents are well displayed here.
This is the third audiobook I've listened to narrated by Robert Glenister, and he continues to blow me away with his pitch-perfect readings. He is perfection.
Craig Johnson manages to do something different with every new addition to his Walt Longmire series, and in the case of Hell is Empty, he's created one of his most memorable and meaningful novels yet. The majority of the novel follows Walt's one-man hunt for the convicted and escaped murderer Raynaud Shade in the icy hell of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area at 13,000-foot elevation during a winter blizzard. This cat-and-mouse pursuit unfolds as an extended reimagining and commentary on Dante's Inferno, complete with its own Virgil -- that is, the return of Virgil White Buffalo from Another Man's Moccasins, who happens to be the grandfather of one of Shade's victims, and who may or may not be dead at the time he helps Walt on his quest.
(Needless to say, this is not the place to start the Longmire series. But if you're already a fan, this is a special treat.)
Suffering from a concussion, hypothermia, exhaustion, and the effects of high elevation, Longmire is hardly a reliable narrator, and Johnson satisfyingly offers both mystical and medical explanations for (most of) what happens in the mountains during Longmire's long night of the soul. This seventh Longmire novel transcends traditional man vs. man and man vs. wilderness conflicts to achieve an introspective, philosophical, spiritual tale worthy of Dante (seasoned with plenty of Homer for extra flavor). I completed this with breathless relish.
George Guidall was made to read these books. His narration is perfection.
This is an elegant, almost dreamlike novel that confirms my high estimation of Meg Rosoff (first inspired by my appreciation of How I Live Now). Rosoff's prose is deceptively simple, and the reader may feel hard pressed to explain what actually happens in the story, and yet the novel is packed with multi-layered ideas and compelling emotion.
The official description begins like this: "Toward the end of his life, H looks back on the relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century. It began many years earlier at St. Oswald's, a dismal boarding school on the coast of England, where the young H came face-to-face with an almost unbearably beautiful boy living by himself at the edge of the sea."
The novel unfolds as H recounts how he escaped the suffocating tyranny of mediocrity at his boarding school by stalking the lone Finn and insinuating himself into Finn's life until a kind of understanding, if not traditional friendship, blossomed between them.
I was reminded somewhat of A Separate Peace by John Knowles at the beginning of the tale, but in the end What I Was surprised me, and I found I liked Rosoff's take even better than Knowles's.
Rosoff, like life, refuses to wrap things up tidily with a bow at the end. I would've been disappointed if she had.
I suspect this will be haunting me for some time (as How I Live Now continues to do).
Ralph Cosham, as always, delivers an excellent narration.
Here's an indicative passage:
"I studied Finn the way another boy might have studied history, determined to memorize his vocabulary, his movements, his clothes, what he said, what he did, what he thought. What ideas circulated in his head when he looked distracted? What did he dream about?
"But most of all what I wanted was to see myself through his eyes, to define myself in relation to him, to sift out what was interesting in me (what he must have liked, however insignificant) and distill it into a purer, bolder, more compelling version of myself.
"The truth is, for that brief period of my life I failed to exist if Finn wasn't looking at me. And so I copied him, strove to exist the way he existed: to stretch, languid and graceful when tired, to move swiftly and with determination when not, to speak rarely and with force, to smile in a way that rewarded the world."
The last five words of The Casual Vacancy, "the congregation averted its eyes," serve as an able description of one of the novel's major themes. The seemingly idyllic village of Pagford is filled with characters who have averted their eyes, who have defined themselves and others in suffocatingly narrow ways, who have contributed to a community of overt denial and hidden resentments. The most likeable, sympathetic, and heroic character, Barry Fairbrother, dies on the fifth page, and his death opens "a casual vacancy" on the parish council that brings many of Pagford's quiet conflicts -- parents vs. children, wives vs. husbands, rich vs. poor -- into high relief.
Rowling's intolerance for intolerance shines through here as she unearths pettiness, hypocrisy, and other ugly aspects of human nature. The shifting points of view give the reader insights into, and often unexpected empathy with, a variety of perspectives.
What is most impressive about The Casual Vacancy is how its multitude of characters and their different storylines weave together to lead the reader inexorably to a final devastating -- and wholly avoidable -- tragedy. This is far from an enjoyable, entertaining read. It is an effective political parable, however. While it's easy to compare the climax to the proverbial train wreck, that comparison is inaccurate. A train wreck is merely a terrible accident, at least to the onlooker. The final tragedy in The Casual Vacancy leaves a great many guilty by commission or omission, and it makes the reader question how he/she might unwittingly contribute to a similar calamity.
I cannot say I liked this novel, because I was (as Rowling intended) continually disturbed as I read it. But I appreciate it for its unflinching commitment, elegant organization, and thorough lack of nostalgic sentimentalism. It reminds me of a more robust version of the television show Broadchurch, in a way: that little community that appears to be ideal is, in fact, the world in miniature, a distillation of imperfect human nature, a portrait of what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation." Rowling leaves us with the suggestion that some fortunate few may learn from their experiences and make positive changes, but that many others will continue to avert their eyes.
I'll let a favorite passage speak for itself.
"'But,' her voice broke at last, and he heard the mother he knew, 'he loves you, Stuart.'
She added the lie because she could not help herself. Tonight, for the first time, Tessa was convinced that it was a lie, and also that everything she had done in her life, telling herself that it was for the best, had been no more than blind selfishness, generating confusion and mess all around. But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky, could anybody stand to know that they all were?"
Tom Hollander's narration is well done.
The Cuckoo's Calling possesses all the traits I would expect from a work by J.K. Rowling: mediocre prose eclipsed by expert storytelling; complex characters who are immediately and consistently compelling; an intricate plot with generous background and multiple surprises; and pointed, incisive critiques of the shallowness and hypocrisy of our contemporary culture, balanced by the heroism of characters who have in one way or another fallen through that culture's cracks.
Once again, her protagonist is an underdog. Cormoran Strike has lost a leg and a livelihood in Afghanistan and a fiancée and home in London. He's living in his shabby office, not quite one step ahead of his creditors, when the brother of a now-deceased childhood friend engages his services as a private investigator. The mystery he is to tackle, however, has already been explored by the authorities, press, and public with a fine-toothed comb. Could it be possible that the highly publicized death of Lulu Landry, the celebrated supermodel and sister of Strike's client, wasn't a suicide after all?
Rowling's skill at planting clues and misdirections works in the reader's favor here. The unraveling of the mystery itself is highly entertaining and absorbing. Rowling's experiences with public fame and private family strife inform her insights and descriptions. The greatest achievement of this novel, though, is the creation of the noir-flavored hero Strike and his "temporary" secretary Robin, who are well worth following into their next adventure.
This is the second audiobook I've heard that featured Robert Glenister as narrator. I'll definitely be seeking out more. He has a gift for accents, and he injects the perfect amount of feeling into his reading to captivate the reader without upstaging the prose. Magnificent! Well done indeed.
I thoroughly enjoyed this crossover between Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes universe and Bram Stoker's Dracula. It is told in the same format as Stoker's work, but with Dr. Watson's letters and notes interspersed with the journal and diary entries of the other characters. Mina Murray employs Holmes and Watson to find the missing Jonathan Harker. They travel to Transylvania and have their own nasty encounter, and this puts them on the trail of Count Dracula.
One might expect that Holmes and Watson would join forces with Van Helsing and company, but quite the opposite is true, and here is the great delight of this novel. The reader gets to see both sets of characters from the not always complimentary perspectives of the other. I particularly enjoyed how Watson's fierce brand of personal loyalty and dedication to medicine opposes Van Helsing's -- and saves the day (and ultimately humankind).
I am a great fan of both Conan Doyle and Stoker, and I've reread the Holmes canon and Dracula quite recently. Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula provides a clever combination of both with a satisfyingly rational conclusion. One word: Science!
Ric Jerrom's handling of the different characters and accents was terrific.
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