Great Reads

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley.

P.D. James takes on life after Pride and Prejudice in her newest book, delighting mystery and Jane Austen fans alike.  On the eve of Pemberley’s annual Lady Anne’s Ball, six years after their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy’s household is brutally disrupted by a hysterical uninvited guest, Lizzie’s sister, Lydia. She claims that her husband, Lt. George Wickham has been murdered by his friend Capt. Martin Denny in the woods.  But upon investigation, it seems that the opposite is true and the inhabitants of Pemberley must cancel the ball and mount a murder investigation in its stead.

Infused with Lizzie’s signature wit, the plot explores the secrets, pasts and hidden agendas of the characters. And It’s no surprise that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are fantastic sleuths. James does a wonderful job capturing Austen’s style while also adding a little life to the familiar; a winning take on the classic.

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Moore, Christopher. Sacre Bleu

Vincent Van Gogh’s unusual suicide—he shot himself in the chest shortly after finishing a painting, then walked a mile to a doctor’s house—provides the catalyst for revelations about the origins of the painter’s madness in this humorous and layered novel.  Lucien Lessard, baker in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, has grown up around some of the greatest painters of the age, including Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Manet.  An aspiring painter himself, Lucien finds that his painting takes fire when his true love, the mysterious and beautiful Juliette, brings him a special tube of ultramarine blue paint from a strange paint dealer known only as the Colorman.  As it turns out, Van Gogh also bought his blue from the Colorman, as did most, if not all, of the other famous painters in Paris at the time. And all of those painters also conducted mad, passionate, and ultimately doomed relationships with beautiful women at the same time.  Lucien, beginning to piece this together, joins forces with his friend “the little gentleman,” the painter Toulouse-Lautrec—who, as it turns out, has also bought blue paint from the Colorman and also lost his true love, Carmen.  They must discover the secret of the Colorman and the secret of the sacred blue before they, too, end up dead.

Humorous as Moore’s books always are, Sacre Bleu, like Lamb and Fool, also contains a wealth of rich historical detail, clearly the product of meticulous reseach and a deep interest in the material. The painters are all portrayed as vividly as their paintings, and fin de siecle Paris is evoked realistically and colorfully.

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Kunzru, Hari. Gods Without Men

Kunzru’s assured novel wanders back and forth in time, following several groups of the lost as they seek something more or better for themselves.  Where their stories all collide eventually is the Pinnacles, three fingers of stone projecting up out of the Mojave Desert. Among the wide cast of characters are Fray Garces, a half-insane Jesuit missionary intent on conveting the natives; Deighton, a scarred and arrogant ethnologist attempting to study the culture of the native tribes before it is lost entirely; dissolute British rock star Nicky Capaldi; the members of a hippie commune, including their “Guide,” Judy; and several others. But the core of the novel is formed by the experiences of Jaz, an assimilated American Sikh; his white American wife Lisa; and their four-year-old son Raj, who has autism.  When Raj vanishes in the desert, near the Pinnacles, Jaz and Lisa become the center of a media storm.  Kunzru’s portait of their marriage is nuanced and insightful; his descriptions of Jaz and his family’s life as immigrants always slightly out of step with American culture even more so.

Complex, layered, lively, and intelligent, Kunzru has crafted an astute and piercing portrait of humanity’s continual quest for meaning—whether through religion, science, drugs, computer programming, or extraterrestrial life—amid the chaos of every day life.

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Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child

Childless middle-aged couple Jack and Mabel take advantage of the cheap land deals to buy a homestead in Alaska in the 1920s. Dreaming of a new start, a life of meaningful labor and simple pleasure, the couple instead find a punishing and brutal land with interminable winters and bug-ridden summers.  Mabel contemplates suicide as Jack nearly kills himself to get the planting done.  In a fit of playfulness one cold winter evening, however, Jack and Mabel build themselves a girl from the year’s first snow and decorate her with a scarf and mittens. In the morning, the scarf and mittens are gone and the couple begin to spot a real young girl in the woods around their cabin—a girl none of their neighbors have seen, or know about. And she is wearing the scarf and mittens.  Mabel convinces herself that their love and longing brought the snow-girl to life as happened in a Russian fairy tale she read as a child, but Jack suspects the reality to be darker than Mabel’s magical tale.  As the years pass, the girl, Faina, becomes as a daughter to the couple—but as Mabel knows, the fairy tale of the snow child never has a happily-ever-after ending.

Told in spare but poetic language, the  novel dances artfully around the question of Faina’s origins—magical, or not? But the real stand-out in the novel is Ivey’s description of Alaska, a landscape both punishing and spectacular—and humanity’s relationship with a place so wild. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and minor magical realism.

Powers, Tim. Hide Me Among the Graves

 

In Powers’ literary novel of supernatural suspense, vampires are very much real and haunt the streets of London.  When pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rosetti was only 14, she unwittingly unleashed a supernatural horror upon not only her family, but all of London. That horror, a vampire who was once her uncle John Polidori—who is known for having published the first work of vampire-themed fiction—along with the mysterious Miss B—aka Boadicea, the ancient warrior-queen of the Iceni—plot to destroy London. Christina Rosetti and her artist brother Dante Gabriel Rosetti, former prostitute Adelaide McKee and veterinary doctor John Crawford, both of whom have managed to attract the attention of the supernatural fiends in various ways, plot to stop them and end their undead lives.

A complex and compelling plot, fascinating use of historical figures, and a unique and frightening take on the vampire legend make this historical horror novel stand out. Fans of books like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte; and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostovawill not want to miss Hide Me Among the Graves.

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