Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

This is the latest title in the engrossing "Mistress of the Art of Death" series which I discovered (and subsequently gobbled up) last summer. I don't seem to have taken the time to write about this series here before, so let me bring you up to date - these are historical mysteries set in the England of Henry Plantagenet, the forward-thinking king who introduced the concept of Common Law. The main character is Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian who is fortunate enough to have lived during the time when women were allowed to learn and practice medicine. She has become something of an expert in forensics - hence the name of the series. Adelia is sent to England to help Henry II track down a serial killer, and he likes her so much that he decides to keep her around to help him solve other mysteries. Adelia is unable to content herself with marrying a local noble and settling down to raise a family, so she carries on practicing medicine in a subversive way so that she can avoid being branded a witch by narrow-minded Britons who believe any woman with medical knowledge MUST be evil. The series follows Adelia as she helps out King Henry in various ways, falls in love, becomes a mother and all the while continues to use her medical knowledge to cure those who would otherwise die in a time when religious superstition reigns over common sense.

A Murderous Procession takes our heroine, Adelia, away from 12th century England, for a change - this time she has been asked to be part of the huge retinue accompanying young Princess Joanna, ten-year-old daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, to Sicily for her marriage. Ariana Franklin has a gift for weaving her careful historical research into a story without getting bogged down in the detail, and I was happy to have a chance to read about life in 12th-century France. The cities, the courts, and the lonely villages; the priests, sailors and royal entourage all seemed so real as Joanna and her entourage travelled through the country on their way to Sicily.

As far as the novel goes, it was an interesting read but the "mystery" part seemed to suffer in this installment of the series; it was made clear from the start who the bad guy was, and what his motives were, and he seemed pretty one-dimensional. That didn't stop me from enjoying the book, though - I finished it in a day or so and I will happily pick up the next title in this series when it comes out!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Distant Neighbourhood by Jiro Taniguchi

This is a manga (Japanese comic book) in which a tired 48-year-old businessman from Tokyo finds himself travelling back to the rural town that he grew up in. He falls asleep by his mother's gravestone and wakes up to find himself back in his fourteen-year-old body, except he has retained all the knowledge and experience of adulthood. He has returned to his old life at a pivotal moment, during the months leading up to the day when his father abandoned his family, never to be seen or heard from again. The protagonist, Hiroshi Nakahara, finds himself in the unique position of being able to influence, possibly even change the course of his own life and those of his classmates and family. The biggest question, of course, is whether he can figure out what caused his seemingly happy father to leave and perhaps prevent this from happening.

The premise of being able to go back in time and live your life over again, to maybe correct some mistakes you made when you were younger, is intriguing, so in spite of comics not being my favourite medium I found myself drawn in by this story. What I liked about this manga was its quiet pace and gentle exploration of Hiroshi's life and of the culture of a small city in mid-20th century Japan. Although Hiroshi has some big questions to explore during his time-travelling experience, he also takes the time to enjoy himself, to savor the pleasure of being in a younger body and being a carefree high-school student, without the burdens of a wife, family and career.

The only thing I didn't really like about reading this story (it's in two novels, in case you are thinking of picking it up) was that they "flipped" the manga so that the book is read from left-to-right instead of the usual Japanese style. Although there's a note inside the book saying this was done with the approval of the author, I still don't like the idea that I'm not seeing the images the way Taniguchi originally drew them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Old City Hall by Robert Rotenberg

Morning radio superstar Kevin Brace's newspaper carrier turns up one morning to find his customer with blood on his hands. Brace's common-law partner is dead in the bathtub and Brace immediately confesses to killing her. What seems like an open-and-shut murder case becomes more complex and confusing as the police and lawyers investigate Brace's life. A long list of unanswered questions is raised, keeping the reader guessing almost to the very end of the story. Why won't Kevin Brace speak to his lawyer? Why were Brace's ex-wife's fingerprints found on a lucrative but as-yet unsigned contract for a new radio program? What are the murder victim's parents hiding? How did it affect the Brace family when their severely autistic son was taken in by family services as a child?

Thanks to my friend Deborah who has started her own book blog, I found out about this debut crime novel by an experienced criminal lawyer in Toronto. I may live in Vancouver now, but I grew up in the Toronto area and so it was great to read a novel set there and featuring so many intimate details of the city, its landmarks and surroundings. The author's unique knowledge of the inner workings of the criminal justice system help to give this book a lot of fascinating detail and authenticity (well, except for the part where the Leafs win the Stanley Cup, pushing this mystery novel dangerously close to fantasy fiction territory... ha ha!) I look forward to more of Rotenberg's novels!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones

It's hard for me to NOT love every novel by this extraordinary, imaginative and hilarious writer. Deep Secret did not disappoint me. I am honestly in awe of Wynne Jones's capacity to come up with completely original and interesting stories and I haven't yet come across a book of hers that seems like a rehashing of a previous tale she has written.

So! Deep Secret. In this book's universe, there are multiple worlds with varying degrees of understanding of magic, and various people called magids whose role it is to practice magic and maintain the balance of magical power throughout the worlds. They're also called upon from time to time to navigate tricky political situations and to find and train their own replacements. Such is the situation that our protagonist, the nerdy, introverted and somewhat grumpy Rupert Venables, finds himself in at the start of this book. One of the magids on Earth has passed away and the galactic empire is in tatters. Rupert tries hard to track down a potential new magid but events just seem to conspire against him. Eventually he hits on the idea of using magic to force all his candidates to attend a Sci-Fi convention so he can observe and interview them. This turns out to be a disastrous idea on many levels, and events unfold in a chaotic and truly unpredictable way. Things really just don't go Rupert's way at any point in this funny and intelligent novel.

I just looked up this book on wikipedia and discovered that Wynne Jones's more recent book The Merlin Conspiracy is considered a sequel of sorts to Deep Secret. I hadn't really noticed the similar universes (I am a pretty forgetful reader) so I think I might track Merlin down and give it a re-read.

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

I'm surprised to see that three months have gone by since I last posted here. I've certainly read a lot of books during that time but I guess not much seemed memorable enough to write about.

At any rate, I have been on a quest for more good thriller/mystery novels since finishing the Stieg Larsson "Milennium" series. This is another Swedish writer whom I had heard good things about, so I thought I'd pick up the first book in Mankell's series about detective Kurt Wallander.

I enjoyed the book - it followed the crime fiction template without being too formulaic, and Wallander is a typical (though not boring) lonely police detective with a messed-up personal life and a tendency to workaholism. He's like a Swedish Inspector Alan Banks (of Peter Robinson's series), right down to his passion for music.

Faceless Killers concentrates on the hunt for the murderer of an elderly couple in their remote farmhouse. The story has overtones of racial tension as the backdrop of the story is a Sweden that is rapidly changing due to an influx of refugee claimants. Not all the locals are very happy about this, some of them even resorting to violence in an effort to drive out the migrants. Meanwhile, Wallander uncovers some disturbing evidence about the secret life of one of the murder victims, and tries to come to terms with the failure of his marriage, his troubled relationship with his daughter and his aging father's mental health difficulties.

There was a lot going on in this book that could lay the groundwork for some meaty future stories, so I'm looking forward to reading more of these books. I do have a ridiculously large pile of novels checked out from the library right now, though, so it could be a while before I get back to Kurt Wallander.