For something a little different, this morning I have a cup of freshly brewed coffee and a slice of Apple Loaf on the table in front of me as I ponder my reading experiences over the past week and the past year.
I just finished reading a short novel by Canadian author Jacqueline Baker called The Broken Hours. This novel begins with Arthor P Crandle accepting a temporary position as secretary and housekeeper for a reclusive writer in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1936 as a way of escaping the all-consuming poverty he has recently been experiencing. He also seems to need this employment as an escape from some personal tragedy which has befallen him. He barely gets to the address of the writer when strange things begin to occur, strange, shadowy things that are just out of reach and just beyond understanding, yet nevertheless felt as very real for Arthor. So continues the novel, as he explores his room and the rest of the house, cleans the accumulated garbage and grime, attempts to stock the cupboards with edible items, feeds the numerous cats that appear on the roof of the neighbouring house, and befriends the elusive out-of-work actress Flossie, who seems to radiate light in this otherwise dreary, dark, shadowy environment, and to whom Arthor is increasingly drawn. The elusive author, Arthor’s employer, is none other than science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, a figure who is appears in the novel very little, but about whom Arthor is constantly in search of details as to his life and current condition. Baker creates a downright creepy atmosphere in this gothic story, right down to the dark and stormy night, the secluded location, the flickering lights in distant windows, absent women and dead children, ghostly figures appearing in the night, a “mad woman in the attic”, and of course the heroine in distress. I know nothing about Lovecraft, but I think this book has been well-researched by Baker and she did a good job of capturing the essence of Lovecraft’s writing without including too many graphical or gory details. All-in-all, if you were in the mood for a creepy read, this would be a good choice, despite the vague, inconclusive ending.
And I just finished an audiobook yesterday by Henning Mankell, not one of the books in the “Kurt Wallander” series, but a standalone title, The Man from Beijing. The story opens with a lone wolf who, due to increasing hunger, has crossed over from Norway to Sweden, where it finds a human leg and thinks itself lucky to have found such a feast. As we discover, this leg belongs to one of the 19 people who have been brutally murdered in the remote hamlet of Hesjövallen in northern Sweden over the course of one night. The rest of the novel follows the investigation into these horrific murders, led by Detective Investigator Vivi Sundberg, who wants to close this case as soon as possible. Enter Brigitta Roslin, a district judge from Helsingborg, who discovers that her parents were distant relatives of two of the murder victims. Forced to take time off for medical reasons, she travels to Hesjövallen to try to help with the investigation, and discovers some diaries written by her distant relatives, which she surreptitiously removes from the scene when no one seems to take her suggestions regarding the murders seriously. She thus inserts herself into the investigation, and the novel follows her back to Helsingborg, then to Copenhagen, and ultimately to Beijing, where her experiences lead her to believe the crime is much more complex than simply one man who confesses to the murder but has no motive. This novel has all the hallmarks of Mankell’s stories: a dark, sinister atmosphere, a good murder mystery that is much larger than it at first seems, an exploration into corruption, cruelty and colonialism, and the personal struggles of the main characters. But, although at the heart of this novel is an excellent murder mystery, the reader is pulled along in too many directions and immersed in too much historical detail of the many thousands of Chinese peasants who were transported to America in the 19th century to build the US railroads through the mountains, and who were forced to live and work in horrific conditions. While this detour was interesting and necessary to understand the overall story, it was far too long and detailed, and threatened to distract the reader from the main story. If I was reading this as a physical book, I would have skimmed this part, but since it was an audiobook, I was forced to listen to every word. There were also other sections that digress from the main plot, such as the overly detailed historical account of Mao’s revolution, which, again, is important to understand the plot, but is too long and detailed, and threatens to lose the reader’s attention. The scope of the novel is too large and ultimately unbelievable, and too many inconsistences exist, and yet, at the heart, if one were to pare away all the extras, the main story is a good one. Unfortunately, the reader has to continue to dig throughout the novel to separate the murder mystery from the novel of social injustices – perhaps Mankell should have published two shorter novels rather than mashing them into one long, meandering one.
And, as is my habit for the first post of the year, I like to see how many books and audiobooks I have finished over the year. This year I read 49 books and listened to 18 audiobooks. That is down from last year on both counts (in 2013 I read 55 books and listened to 23 audiobooks). I also recall that I was going to limit my Favourite Audiobooks to 5, as I have less to choose from, so my Top 5 titles are:
All Cry Chaos Leonard Rosen
The Expats Chris Pavone
Our Kind of Traitor John Le Carré
Mission Song John Le Carré
The Silent Wife ASA Harrison
That’s all for today. Happy New Year, and Happy Reading in 2015!!
Bye for now…
PS I have decided that, during my weekly morning blogging time, tea is far better than coffee.