Tuesday, October 03, 2006

CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY by Alan Paton: Amazingly, I'd missed out on this one until we read it for book club. Having lived in Haiti and been recently in Africa, I was in the perfect frame of mind for this story of a black South African pastor whose son kills the son of white farmer during a robbery. With its distinctive style and structure (including no quotation marks), it took me a while to get into the story. But the story is powerful, a meditation on apartheid South Africa and the responsibility of those who know better to do better. The last section of the book is beautiful and uplifting and I'll keep it on my bookshelf forever.
EXIT LINES and CHILD'S PLAY by Reginald Hill: more Dalziel/Pascoe catch-up books. The first deals with the seemingly-unrelated deaths of three elderly men on the same night. Of course, everything's related in a mystery--at least, in a good mystery. The second is the story of an old, rich woman who dies and leaves her estate to the soldier son who went missing in Italy forty years before. How far will other members of the family go to get their hands on the fortune? And is the man who appears at the funeral really the lost prodigal?
PASTWATCH by Orson Scott Card: a friend lent me this alternate history tale in which a future Earth civilization, on the verge of utter destruction, sends three travelers back in time to make the alterations that will preserve humanity's future. Their key event? Christopher Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. Good characters, vivid settings, intricate plot--but somehow, the whole was not as good as the sum of its parts. Not my favorite Card by a long shot.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson: Jackson is best known for her short story "The Lottery" in which a town draws lots to see who . . . well, if you haven't read it, you really should! I read HILL HOUSE because I'd seen several movie versions and was curious about the source material. It was much more psychological than horror, but I couldn't quite sympathize with Eleanor as the main character. On the other hand, IN THE CASTLE is brilliant: domestic and creepy and innocent and twisted all at once. From the back flap copy: "17-year-old Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Once there were seven Blackwoods--until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl. Acquitted of the murders, Constance returned to the big old house, where Merricat protects her from the curiosity and hostility of the villageres. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp . . ." A great read for Halloween :)
HALF-BROKEN THINGS by Morag Joss: a new to me British crime writer, this is a stand-alone psychological suspense novel. Again, the back flap copy does the story more justice than I can: "Jean is a house sitter at the end of a dreary career. Steph is nine months pregnant and on the run. And Michael is a thief. Through a mixture of deceit, good luck, and misfortune, these three reluctant, damaged loners have come together at a secluded country home. Living off the manor's riches, tending its grounds and gardens, they leave the outside world far behind them . . . Until the first unexpected visitor arrives." A wonderful writer, a compelling story, but with that sense of seeing a train wreck coming for these people and knowing you can't do anything to stop it. I will read more by Joss.
BIRTH OF BRITAIN by Winston Churchill: in between saving Britain, Churchill wrote about its history. I just read volume one, from the Celts to the Tudors. The writing is lucid and clear and helped make sense of lots of twisted family trees and timelines. I even now have a decent idea of who Alfred the Great was and why he's Great. My only quarrel was with the final chapter on Richard III. An ardent Ricardian myself, I took issue with Churchill's admitting that Thomas More was a biased source, and then going ahead to accept More's Tudor-revisionist history at face value. Other than that, a wonderful book for anyone interested in British history. I will read future volumes.
THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova: this manuscript, the author's first, sold at auction for 1.6 million dollars. As jealous as that makes me, I'll freely admit that this is the second time in a year that I've read this book and I enjoyed it just as much the second time through. "To my dear and unfortunate successor . . ." thus begins a story of Dracula, communist Eastern Europe, a teenage girl without a mother who is trying desperately to understand the things her father is hiding from her, a chase through history and old parchments and older churches to save a friend before he becomes undead. I loved this book, far more than Dan Brown's antiquities chase, and I suspect I'll read it again in the future.

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