On this chilly morning, I’m happy to have a steaming cup of tea (and a purring kitty on my lap!) to keep me warm as I think about the books I read recently. We’ve had some snow, so it looks a bit seasonal, and to help put me in the holiday spirit, I’ve decided that this week, I will drink tea using my festive bright red snowman mug! Hohoho!
(Before I begin my comments, I need to stress that the thoughts expressed here reflect my opinions and reading experieneces only.)
I read two disappointing books last week. The first was Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell. Her last novel, completed before her sudden death in May of this year, tells the story of a young novelist, Carl Martin, who inherits his father’s house upon his death. Carl’s father was a believer in alternative medicines, and the large cupboard in the bathroom of the house is filled with unusual capsules and vials. After publishing a moderately successful first book, Death’s Door, Carl relies on the rent from the upper floor to be his sole form of income as he struggles to write a second novel. His tenant, Dermot, is a strange, creepy, intensely religious man who works at a veterinary clinic nearby. When Dermot witnesses Carl’s involvement in a friend’s death, he blackmails Carl and refuses to pay his rent. Guilt and obsession creep insidiously into to Carl’s psyche as he slowly spirals out of control, despite the efforts of his girlfriend, Nicola. His actions reflect his mental breakdown and he is unable to stop himself from “taking care of” additional threats and obstacles using violent means. His deliverance, when it final arrives, takes a most unusual form. I have read or listened to quite a few of Rendell’s books, both those in the “Inspector Wexford” series and her standalones, and have enjoyed them. So when I stumbled across this book at the library, I thought that it would suit my mood right now - a good British mystery by a well-known and talented author. But it was a huge disappointment for me. I didn’t enjoy it right from the first page, but it was so “easy” to read that before I knew it, I was half finished, so I stuck with it and reached the end in just a few days. I thought the story lacked the complexity and depth I have come to expect from this author, and I didn’t really understand the purpose of the secondary plot, which seemed unnecessary and confusing. And Carl’s character was not really believable or even likable - he seemed to be a pathetic spoiled young man who clearly could not take care of himself. His character evoked in this reader the same feelings that the main character in Nino Ricci's novel, Sleep, did - both men spiral out of control and take different, though both violent, means to seek release. I feel awful criticizing such a wonderful writer, so I’ll just say that this book, her 66th novel, did not appeal to me.
The second disappointing book I read last week was My Life Before Me by Norah McClintock. This is the first book I’ve read in the “Secrets” series, a series comprised of seven books by seven different Canadian authors telling the stories of seven different young women who, after their orphanage burns down, are sent out into the world to make their own way, armed only with a single clue as to where they came from or who their parents are. I’ve been looking forward to reading these books since they were published in September, so I brought two of them home with me to read over the holidays. Set in the summer of 1964, My Life Before Me tells of Cady Andrews, a 16-year-old who is sent out into the world to discover her past. She dreams of becoming a reporter at a time when women, if they can get into the newspaper business at all, cover the “Social Events” or “Fashion” columns, not “hard news”. The headmistress at the orphanage gives Cady a newspaper clipping that was found with her when she was delivered to the orphanage, and it is up to Cady to determine what it means, and whether it has any significance in her own life. This clipping leads her to a small town in Indiana, where she tries to uncover information about the death of Thomas Jefferson, a young black man who, imprisoned for the supposed murder of a white man, was shot while trying to escape. Cady uses investigative techniques and quick wits to dig deeper into the racial divide of this northern town, and the more she uncovers, the more danger she, and the good people who help her, are exposed to. What she finds reveals the truth about the murders and about her parentage, and ultimately sets Cady on the road to achieving her dream. I love books about family secrets and solving mysteries, and this book was “ok” - I would give it 3 out of 5. It was certainly well-written, and the mystery was complex, the characters, including the minor characters that comprised the townspeople, were interesting and varied, and the exploration into racial prejudice was done with sensitivity and skill. But some of the ways Cady expressed herself were too mature and adult-like for a 16-year-old, and she had knowledge of some things that no one her age, even today with internet access, would have, let alone a girl who was raised in a small-town orphanage in the 1950s, a girl who rarely left the home and whose main life experience came from reading the few books she could get her hands on. I guess my main concern is that Cady lacked the innocence and naivete that one would expect from a child who grew up in such circumstances. Having said that, I am definitely interested in reading other books in this series, and I have The Unquiet Past by Kelley Armstrong sitting on my coffee table waiting to be read.
But first I need to finish a delightful book that has recently been nominated for the Forest of Reading Red Maple Award, We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. I’ll tell you more about that one next time.
That’s all for today. Have a Merry Christmas! I hope Santa is good to you.
Bye for now…