A friend read Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s previous book, and complained that, while it was good, she wanted more Mexican culture. Not necessarily less gothic, just more of what the country feels like.
Well, Velvet was the Night has that. But it’s not the tourist-friendly Mexico. It’s the 1970s CIA-funded anti-communist groups fighting the student radicals who are protesting government corruption. The CIA is implicated from the top of the book. It’s clear that the situation is ugly and it’s the Americans’ fault.
This is the background to a classic thriller – there is undeveloped film that everyone is after. We’re following two of them: Elvis, a low-level agent known as a Hawk, one of the CIA funded groups, and Maite, a legal secretary who has been asked to take care of a neighbor’s cat and ends up mixed up with the student radicals when the neighbor doesn’t return. These two are wonderfully drawn characters. Elvis has a heart of gold and loves old movies and music. Maite is lonely and loves romance novels and records. You want to know what happens to them, from the beginning.
The plot is a little slower to get started. But the story takes off once everyone is pursuing the neighbor and her photos, which everyone seems to think will blow the roof off the current government. Will Elvis find the film? Will Maite ever get to give up taking care of the cat? Where is the neighbor anyway? You want to know what happens in the story, and more importantly, you want to know what happens to Elvis and Maite.
Velvet was the Night is a wonderful book, all noir and thriller, without ever being cold-hearted.
Magpie Murders is your basic murder mystery. Someone who isn’t very like-able is murdered, there is a cast of characters, clues along the way, someone who isn’t an official police detective who isn’t willing to buy the party line, with a resolution at the end. But there is a clever conceit to this one – the murdered person is a murder mystery author. And their latest book contains enough clues that you actually get to read the second book, embedded within Magpie Murders.
Anthony Horowitz is the creator of Foyle’s War, a murder mystery series on PBS that I enjoy, and the book-embedded-in-the-book has some of that energy. He has also worked on Midsomer Murders, in case that particular PBS murder mystery show is more your jam. The point: the guy knows how to construct a mystery – this isn’t his first book, either – and the plot is satisfying. My only criticism is that the characters were a little on the bland/stereotype side. But overall, I enjoyed it.
Ratking is a book from my shelves, first bought over 20 years ago (and originally published in 1989). It’s a mystery that takes place in 1984-ish Italy, scarred by the political kidnappings of the late 1970s. It’s not a cozy mystery or one that wants you to see how beautiful Italy is. That black and white photo on the cover with the prominent shadow? Yeah, this is a film noir version of Italy, maybe hardboiled? Ratking has more in common with Raymond Chandler than it does with Under the Tuscan Sun.
Our hero, Aurelio Zen, is a disgraced police detective who gets put on a kidnapping case in Perugia because someone important is leaning on someone else important, and something needs to be done. Zen is the only person available, and no one really thinks there’s anything to this anyway, so it’s fine.
Plot-wise, it’s your standard mystery. But I love this book for its atmosphere – so weary and tired and full of crumbling beauty – and its description of what a ratking is. “A ratking is something that happens when too many rats have to live in too small a space under too much pressure. Their tails become entwined and the more they strain and stretch to free themselves the tighter grows the knot binding them…” It just seems so appropriate for this political season in which we find ourselves.
I will always love Ratking for its atmosphere and cynical beauty. If you want to see actual beauty, there is a three part series called Zen that you can buy on Amazon. Ratking is the third episode, even though it’s the first one in the book series.
A book I would like to rename “Becky with the Good Hair.”
Rebecca is a quasi-classic. I read it for book club and several of the other members had read it when they were in school. I had not. Because I knew it was suspenseful, I went ahead and read the wikipedia plot summary ahead of time. I am a person who doesn’t mind spoilers or knowing how things turn out, obviously. (Yes, I sometimes flip ahead to read the last few pages of a book too.) It helps me concentrate on things other than the plot, like the crafting of the story and the characters and the mood.
Rebecca, the book, made me SO ANGRY. First, it’s three separate types of book: the romance at the top, the psychological thriller in the middle, and then a more straightforward mystery at the end. PICK ONE. Second, the unnamed narrator is very ill-treated by ever single other character in the book – I mean, the author doesn’t even give her a name, which is to illustrate how mousy she is, but then why does anyone take any interest in her at all? But it totally undermines the romance at the beginning when her husband, Maxim, seems to love her, knows she’s out of her depth coming to Manderley, and then gives her absolutely no support? And because Daphne Du Maurier wants to drive home what a mousey non-entity she is, the narrator never takes the initiative on anything, preferring to let the staff do what they want or doing things the way Rebecca, Maxim’s dead first wife, did them. By the end of the book, I just didn’t care.
But we had interesting discussions at book club, talking about whenever Maxim really loves her, how the house represents Rebecca and her influence over the story, and how effectively creepy Mrs Danvers is despite not actually being in the book that much. So while I didn’t like Rebecca, I do appreciate the discussion it spawned and I’m glad I read it in a way that I got to talk about it with other smart people afterwards.
The Vanishing Stair is the second book in the Truly Devious series; they are not stand-alone books with three separate mysteries. The puzzle is spread across all three books in the series, and while there are smaller mysteries solved in the first two books, all the big answers are presumably going to be answered in the third and final book, due to be released in January 2020.
Stevie is a junior in high school attending Ellingham Academy, a prestigious private school in the Vermont Mountains. Ellingham was a prosperous industrialist whose wife and daughter were kidnapped in the 1930s. Stevie starts out working to solve that mystery: who did it, what happened to his daughter Alice who was never found. But that investigation triggers events in her own, current time period. The story is told both in the present time and as a string of events in the 1930s. The chapters are well marked so you know where you are in the two threads of the larger mystery.
Personally, Stevie’s anxiety speaks to me. It is part of her character, but that’s it: it’s just part of her character. It absolutely affects who she is and how she does things, but it’s not fetishized or presented as a problem to be solved. Writing anxious characters like that, who take their meds regularly and have therapists, normalizes them and makes it ok.
I’m still all in on this series and look forward to the next book coming out in January.
Truly Devious is the first book in a YA mystery series. Be forewarned that only two of the planned three books are out (the last one is scheduled for release in January 2020).
Stevie (short for Stephanie) Bell is a new student to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that was founded in the 1930s. Shortly after the founding, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and possibly killed. A culprit was found, but no one believes that he did it. Stevie wants to be the real Sherlock Holmes, and her mission at Ellingham Academy (in the present time) is to solve the mystery.
The past mystery is nicely mysterious, the setting of a secluded school without parents is handled in the best hothouse-for-bizarreness way, there’s a romance story that is very much not the point, and while there is also a current murder, it does get solved. So even though the past mystery is going to take three books to solve (probably), there is a sense of resolution and completeness to this book.
I enjoyed Truly Devious and have put the second book in the series on my hold list at the library.
The Chatelet Apprentice is a fine first mystery novel, doing a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene of mid-1700s Paris (Paris is important because it puts our detective into glancing contact with King Louis XV), and generally easing you into a new mystery series.
That said, I had a terribly hard time getting into this book. It was a slow read the whole way through, and while it wasn’t bad, it was maybe more laid back than I wanted? I don’t know. It is translated from the French, and so, since it was written for the French market, maybe moves at a different pace? Or maybe I’m just not used to reading cozy mysteries and as a result am not used to them anymore.
Regardless, if you’re looking for a new mystery series or fiction books about historical France, try out The Chatelet Apprentice.
For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.
So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.
The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.
The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.
I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.
Someone I love was recently diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, aka OCD. This is a specific kind of anxiety disorder, less about being neat and tidy, and more about not-so-fun things like sometimes disturbing thoughts randomly popping into your head and being convinced something bad is going to happen if you don’t do x. Whatever x happens to be, and it’s specific to the person.
John Green has OCD. (This is a lovely podcast where he talks about it.) Turtles All the Way Down is about a teenaged girl with OCD. So I read this book not from an enjoyment standpoint, but from a help-me-learn-what-it-feels-like-to-have-this standpoint.
For me it did a good job, especially showing Aza’s deterioration because of her refusal to regularly take her medication. (Seriously: TAKE YOUR MEDS, KID. Love, a mom) It’s all handled with a deft and loving touch and explains so, so much.
Turtles All the Way Down helped me, the story was enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about what living with OCD is actually like.
If you are looking for entertaining brain candy, The Royal Runaway is your book. Princess Thea gets caught up in an international investigation when her fiancé just doesn’t show up at the altar during their wedding. Well, he doesn’t show up at all – they don’t make it to the church. Everyone thinks he’s a cad, she nurses a broken heart, and four months later she’s getting on with things. Until someone starts investigating exactly what happened to her former fiancé.
It’s got old-school James Bond style investigative fun and intrigue and it’s all told from Princess Thea’s point of view so there’s none of that icky misogyny.
Recommended for when you need something to escape from the real world.