Friday, October 18, 2013

A match made in heaven or a literary crime?

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James


All of Pemberley is getting ready for the annual Lady Anne Ball, and all seems to be going as planned. That is, until the carriage with Elizabeth's sister Lydia shows up. She's all in a tizzy, going on about gunshots in the woods and begging someone to find her husband, fearing for his life. When the search party finds Wickham, he is alive. However, he's covered in blood and standing above the body of his best friend, Captain Denny. So begins the mystery of the murder of Captain Denny, which will certainly bring scandal on Pemberley and the Darcys, and might end up with Wickham hanging from the gallows. This is "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James.

There have been many attempted sequels and prequels to Jane Austen's novels, with varying degrees of success. One would think that the idea of a crime fiction novel based on the characters of Austen's best loved book, written by one of the world's best crime fiction writers would make a match made in heaven. In fact, it should have been just the thing to get all those macho men interested in Austen. But unfortunately, something went amiss between concept and execution.

First of all, I want it to be completely clear that James' prose is totally spot-on. She captures the mood and style to perfection. Furthermore, there's not even an iota of action throughout the story that would seem in the least bit incongruous for even the minor characters. In this, James proved from the first paragraphs that she knows her Austen inside and out. She deftly mimics Austen beautifully, and never falls into any pitfalls that might have turned this tribute into a mockery.

As for crime fiction, we all know there are few writers out there that can match James' acumen for the genre. Her Inspector Dalglish novels are a marvel of creativity and ingenuity, with just the right amounts of deception and foreshadowing. James is the envy of other authors who attempt to match her ability, and is well deserving of all the praise heaped upon her by her devoted fans.

How then is it, that all of these exemplary attributes didn't combine into a hybrid masterpiece that we were all certain should have been the result? How is it possible that this book ended up plodding along, until it smacked us in the face with a comically timed solution that came to us almost of nowhere? Did I miss something along the way? That's not like me. So if I did, then either I skimmed through only those essential passages that might have hinted at the resolution or the clues were just too indistinct for me to realize their significance. For me, the best part of a crime fiction book is that "ah-ha" moment when all those seemingly random little bits and pieces fall gently into place when we find out "who-done-it" and why. I'm sorry to say that this magical moment was sorely missing from this book.

My personal theory as to why this didn't work is very simple. Most good crime fiction has a main character (or group of people) whose sole purpose is to discover who really committed the crime, how they did it and what their motive was. They lead us through the investigation and happen upon all of those key pieces of information and bring forth all the suspects, which can lead us astray or guide us to the answer. We become intimately familiar with this person (or group), along with their idiosyncrasies or emotional baggage that both distracts and embellishes the story. Here, there is no one doing this - at least not anyone that we hear about. This means, the focus of the book is totally on the periphery of the crime and its impact on the people of Pemberley, and not solving the murder itself.

It is possible that James felt that we are already intimately familiar with all of Austen's characters. Because of this, giving one of them the task of solving the crime would seem out of character. Her only option would have been to introduce new character/s who could fulfill this role. Actually, she did give us some of these, and they were instrumental in uncovering the truth. However, it seems to me that what happened was she didn't want Austen's own creations taking a back seat to some upstart, and that is what let her down.

James knew that this wasn't a successful attempt, and she says so herself in her introduction to the book, where she apologizes to both her readers and the late Miss Austen. In the end, we must forgive her for succumbing to this temptation, and remember that one bad apple cannot rot a whole bushel of good ones. I'll be generous and give three out of five stars to this book, but I cannot really recommend it as anything more than a curiosity piece.


"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (in other eReader formats, with extended audio and video clips), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. This review originally appeared on the website Curious Book Fans and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Many Collective Nouns for Rooks


Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield


William Bellman started his life humbly. With a father who abandoned him and his mother, and a grandfather who never approved of them, he still held no bitterness. Then his uncle took him on at the mill and he quickly proved himself to be intelligent and hard working with an excellent head for business. Soon he was prospering along with the mill. But everyone's life is touched by death. It was at those times that William began noticing a dark, cloaked figure - someone who disappeared as quickly as he appeared. When they finally meet, this mysterious man becomes William's partner as he takes on a new business venture, but at what cost? 

I think it is important to note the prologue of this book. William's story begins with the recounting of the incident when he was only 11 and used his catapult to kill a rook. By all rights, he shouldn't have succeeded in killing it, and yet he did - through careful calculation. The next day, a fever overcomes William and by the time is well again, the whole incident is forgotten. This is what gives us the first indication that Bellman will succeed. The innate abilities that helped him fell that bird were the same ones he used to solve problems and accomplish difficult tasks and predict outcomes. What's more, we soon find out that he does this with an amiable manner that makes him likable to all.

It is precisely that likability that Setterfield puts into our minds at the outset that makes this story so unique. We are immediately sympathetic to William because of this story. The depth of that emotion increases as we see how his good nature never lets his or his mother's past difficulties, or even the attitudes of his grandfather make him embittered. So when one after another of the people in his life begin dying, we are convinced that Bellman is almost like a modern-day Job. Even as everything gets darker, and his work takes over his life, we still care about him, we want him to be happy, and we believe he deserves it.

Setterfield calls this a ghost story, and in many ways this is accurate, but there's nothing scary here. Of course, there is the ominous stranger, who flits in and out of Bellman's life, and is therefore somewhat ghostlike. But there's more to it than that, and the more we read of this story, "ghost" becomes more a metaphor for the whole story than a noun reserved for the mystical being that Bellman names "Mr. Black." What's more, Setterfield draws us into this tale, bit by bit, with a story that builds and breathes. The tension she constructs here rises in undulating arcs, with each successive climax adding to the next until she reaches the final one. In this, she melds the plot and the character development together in perfect harmony, making it all the more of a compelling read.

Setterfield also intersperses the story with interesting passages about rooks, especially the historical mythology surrounding them. In this, she makes the innate melancholy of this bird a symbol for sorrow, while reminding us that its flight is also a symbol for hope and freedom. We get see how some of their qualities are not unlike those of humans, as she builds up a type of synergy between Bellman and these birds. Finally, these snippets become like dots on a graph or meeting points, which all connect back to the story in the prologue. All of this is done with a luscious and rich prose style that fits perfectly into the late 19th century setting, without feeling the least bit old fashioned or stodgy.

If there is anything I would criticize about this book, it might be that I would have liked a bit more of the story of Bellman's daughter, Dora. However, on second thought, this might have been distracting, and could possibly have made the ending of the book less poetic. In short, I'd be hard pressed to find any fault with this novel. From all this, I'm sure you can see that I am convinced that Setterfield is a very exciting talent. She has the ability to mold and shape a story together with her characters and settings that all blend in together to make one, complete vibrant picture. This is why I have to give Diane Setterfield's novel "Bellman & Black" a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it.



"Bellman & Black" by Diane Setterfield was released on October 10, 2013 in the UK by Atria/Emily Bestler Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and in the US on November 5, 2013 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read this book via NetGalley. 
 
 





Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Trio of Girls and Their Off-Key Father


Finding Amos by Mason, Billingsly and McFadden  


Amos is the only connection between Cass, Toya and Tomiko. Back in the day, when he was making it in the music scene of Motown and blues, he was very popular with the women. These girls' mothers were among them, and he loved them all - but not in the way they needed him. So when his career called, he abandoned them, each in turn. Twenty years later, in a nursing home after an accident and diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the only phone number he has is Cass's - the only one of these three girls, who isn't biologically his. And now that he needs them, the question is, will any of them forgive him. This is "Amos" by J. D. Mason, ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Bernice L. McFadden.

Girls have always had their daddy issues, and especially those who were abandoned by their fathers - both literally and figuratively. There are countless novels out there that deal with these problems, and how they can seep into a woman's life. The themes forgiveness and closure are no less familiar to us than those that deal with a parent who is dying from Alzheimer's - both separately and together. So as far as these things are concerned, there is very little that is new here. However, the main reason why I was drawn to this book was its three-author collaboration. I was more curious about how this would come together than the stories of these characters. But there was nothing noted in my copy of this book that reveals how these writers collaborated.

At the onset we find that each chapter is entitled with one of the names of the four characters. Because of this it occurred to me that each author took one of the girls and then came together to write the chapters on Amos. But as I got through the first set of all the characters, I realized that there was a similarity of style that seemed to exclude this possibility. There are, of course, pluses and minuses to this. On the one hand, the book feels almost like it was written by only one person, which should have been a good thing. However on the other hand, there wasn't enough difference in the four voices to make them seem like separate individuals.  

This, I believe, was the major drawback of this book. In order to make each of these characters come to life, they really needed to be very distinct. With one author, this isn't an easy thing to achieve, but I've seen it done many times and with varying levels of success. One would think that with three writers this should have been a snap, especially if my original assumption had been correct. But because there was no clearly evident diversity between how these characters were written, it is possible that there was total collaboration on all four of them. This also means that some of the characters felt less three dimensional than others.

The other problem I had with this book was I felt the conclusion was a bit unrealistic to me. I'd prefer not to elaborate on this further, to keep from spoiling it for those people who might want to read this book. To its credit, however, the book doesn't finish with an absolute conclusion for everyone, and we are left with some loose ends.

This doesn't mean that the book isn't well written, because it is and very much so. The prose is both evocative and simple, with a good balance between the external forces that pull these people through the action, and the internal struggles that motivate how each of them acts.  We also get just enough flashbacks to fill in the gaps in their lives and histories without making us feel that this overtakes what goes on in the present. It was also very effective for the chapters to get shorter as the story progressed, which helped build the story nicely towards its climax. All of this makes an interesting and fast read were we see how these three different women learn to cope with their pasts alongside Amos's self-realization spurred on by his own frailty of aging.

More importantly, I found that I actually could empathize with most of these characters. This could be because my own father was less than perfect, and he also died from Alzheimer's. Thankfully, I don't think my adult life was as scarred by his actions as these women's lives were, but I can see how Amos's actions could have been the underlying cause for their problems. Because of this, I think I'll still recommend this book but I can only give it three out of five stars. 


"Finding Amos" by J.D. Mason, ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Bernice L. McFadden, published by Gallery books, a division of Simon & Schuster, release date October 13, 2015, but can be purchased from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository and iTunes. This review is a version of the one originally published on Dooyoo and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.