Friday, August 11, 2006

Why do I read them, why do I write them?
The second question is the most easily answered--I write what I like to read. I've been a fan of mysteries since my childhood, beginning with the inimitable titian-haired sleuth, Nancy Drew. Also the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, the Bobbsey Twins and, when I'd devoured those, I moved on to Agatha Christie.
But the turning point in my love affair with mysteries was my senior year of college. For my senior seminar, I chose The Mystery Novel. We read far and wide across the genre. I read Dame Agatha and Ross McDonald and Ellery Queen. I was introduced to the historical mystery with Ellis Peters and Anne Perry. I fell in love with Peter Wimsey and his Harriet in BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON. I met John le Carre through THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. I felt the delicious creepiness of Henry James' TURN OF THE SCREW and threw myself into 19th-century Russia in Dostoyevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Last night, I dug out a paper I wrote for that class, most impressively titled "Moral Complexity in the Mystery Novel." I had hoped to find some profound line or paragraph, something I could use as a springboard for this post, but I'm afraid what I discovered is that, when I was in college, I wrote like I was in college. Not bad, you understand--I did get an A on the paper--but nothing terribly insightful or original. So I'm left to my own devices to explain why I read mysteries.
I read mysteries for the characters. The inherent tensions in a criminal investigation goes a long way to revealing characters--and character. I'm not a puzzle fan. I don't read for the intellectual element of trying to figure out what happened. I read to find out why and how it effects those involved. I read for motivation and resolution and judgment and mercy. I don't require happy endings--only satisfying ones. An ending in which loose ends have been collected and unanswered questions are rare.
An ending, in short, which only exists in fiction.

Monday, August 07, 2006


WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: a re-read for book club. It’s the story of Bertha Antoinette Mason, the mad wife in the attic from JANE EYRE. Part I is her childhood in the West Indies, with a dangerously unstable mother and personal poverty. Part II is the story of her marriage to Rochester, the well-blooded but unmoneyed Englishman who’s been lied to about his intended bride and her family. Part III is a brief look at the events in JANE EYRE through Antoinette’s eyes. I love this book, probably even more this time than when I first read it in college. It changed the way I read all books—now I’m always aware of the untold stories hovering behind the corner of every book I read.

GREGOR AND THE MARKS OF SECRET by Suzanne Collins: the fourth in the Overlander YA series. Jacob’s a big fan, and I’ve followed right along with him. In this installment, Gregor gets swept along as Luaxa tries to discover what’s happening to the Underland’s mice population. By the time the book ends, war is no longer threatening but at the very doorstep of the human’s kingdom in the Underland. A well-realized fantasy, with unique features and compelling characters. Can’t wait for the next one.

BIRDS OF A FEATHER by Jacqueline Winspear: the second in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, set in 1930 in a London that is still dealing with the devastating effects of WWI. The mystery of three dead women leads Maisie back into the early days of the war—the “feather” referenced in the title is the white feather that some women handed out to men in England who were not in uniform, a mark of cowardice and a means of trying to guilt them into the military. I love Maisie herself and Winspear is a master of setting, class, and characters of the time-period. I’d love to do half as well as she has done in this series.

CHARLIE BONE AND THE HIDDEN KING by Jenny Nimmo: another YA fantasy, about children in England endowed with gifts as diverse as calling up storms, talking to animals, and learning about people by touching clothing. This is the fifth in the series and Charlie Bone, whose father disappeared when he was a baby, is dealing with other crises in his home. From his mother’s bewitchment by a sorcerer to his grandmother being frozen and left in the bathtub until they can figure out to thaw her, Charlie and his friends search for the Red King himself, who has spent a thousand years in the form of a tree. Not as good as Harry Potter, but intriguing enough to have kept me reading thus far.

PAST POISONS edited by Maxim Jakubowski: a collection of mystery short stories, all historical. I read it for obvious purposes. There were several standouts, including Anne Perry’s tale of Scotland’s Queen Gruoch, also known as Lady MacBeth. A pleasant way to spend research time and see what can be accomplished in the short form of historical mysteries.

DECLARE by Tim Powers: A book I picked up on recommendations from DorothyL. In 1963, Andrew Hale is 40-year-old English tutor at Cambridge. But one phone call pulls him back into the world of British Intelligence which he served throughout WWII, ending on Mount Ararat in 1948 with the death of a team he’d led up the mountain to kill a colony of djinn. A combination spy thriller/paranormal story, with the real-world figure of British double agent Kim Philby playing a key role, I loved everything about this book. This is a fabulous, fabulous book that I would recommend to anyone.

PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger: a bestseller upon publication in 2001, this is still a popular book-club choice (which is why I read it.) Eleven-year-old Reuben Land is the narrator and, as he calls it, the witness of his father’s miracles. This book has everything: a shooting that may or may not have been self-defense, a little sister who writes epic Western ballads about a cowboy named Sunny Sundown, a father who performs actual miracles, a posse searching the Dakota Badlands in the middle of winter, and a penultimate chapter that left me in tears. Highly recommended.

Titles and Friendships

I have the best circle of friends in the world. Women who are my sisters in every sense but blood . . . and being adopted, I don't rate blood all that highly. We are known amongst ourselves and to our significant others as The Bluestocking Posse.

I've never had friendships that merited a title before. The posse bit came first. One night, one of the husbands said, with a tinge of awe and/or fear in his voice: "They're like a gang!" We thought gang didn't have quite the connotations that we as women of wit and elegance were going for, so we chose posse instead. A posse of six, ready to ride at the drop of a hat and the sheriff's call. To bring in dinner, to decorate houses in celebration, to attend funerals and lend books and make costumes and watch children and show up uninvited with candy and shoulders ready to be cried on.

Bluestocking was my contribution to the title. Several years ago, my neighbor e-mailed my husband with a definition from one of those word-of-the-day calendars. "Bluestocking: a woman of intellectual or literary interests." As the neighbor said in his e-mail: "That's Laura." I am not immune to flattery and I can think of worse "B" words to be called. Thinking of myself as a bluestocking was a balm against long suburban days of homework and laundry and piano practice. It gave me permission to take my literary interests seriously, both reading and writing. And I thought it sounded really cool in connection with posse--and so the title was set.

Naming my first book was much harder. For a long time I called it LAMENTATION without being entirely happy about it. Then one day I was reading the Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition, doing research into the Anglican service for the dead. There's a beautiful passage that reads: "I held my tongue and spake nothing, I kept silence; yea, even from good words, and it was pain and grief to me." From that, a title was born--KEPT SILENCE.

The best titles, like the best friendships, are magical, hinting at the depths to be found if one is brave enough to open the cover. My titles, like my books, may never be counted among the best.

But my friendships are.