Saturday, February 11, 2012

House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (2011)

I have not read too many Sherlock Holmes books, though I have appreciated his observant ways and amazing deductions from seemingly insignificant clues. (I read more Agatha Christie in my day.)  I don't know enough about the mystery genre as a whole, but I assume Holmes or rather Doyle started a trend in clues based mysteries. My understanding is that Anthony Horowitz is the first author given permission by Conan Doyle's estate to write a new Sherlock Holmes book. It is narrated in by Dr. Watson after Holmes' death.

Holmes and Watson are visited by an art dealer Edmund Carstairs, who is being stalked by someone that he believes is from America and associated with destruction of valuable paintings and a murder. As Holmes and Watson start investigating, various people are killed, including two young children. Holmes is accused of the murder of one of them and actually spends some time in jail. The story eventually leads to the dark crimes of the House of Silk, and Holmes of course unravels it all in the end. There are quite a lot of villains in this story, and I was suspicious of one of the key people, but could not imagine how that person was going to get tied into the seemingly disparate crimes.

It took a while to get me really involved in the story, but it was interesting how Horowitz was able to maintain the late 19th century flavor - where are travel occurred in horse drawn carriages, communication by telegrams, no DNA or ballistics testing, no forensic science so prominent in today's TV shows.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (2011)

I don't remember where I heard about this book, but it was on some list of books about librarians. We didn't have it, so I requested it through MeLCat (a Michigan library system) from Frankenmuth. Lucy Hull is a children's librarian in a small town in Missouri, and her favorite patron is Ian, a boy who likes to read voraciously, is curious about everything, but who's mother is very conservative and want to limit his reading. His parents also think he may be gay and send him to course to cure him of it. One morning Lucy finds Ian camping out in the library, and takes him for a ride, which turns into a long road trip.

I loved the library setting, the librarianly dedication to feeding fertile minds, the quirky staff at the library, the frequent references to good books. I didn't quite understand what Lucy thought she was doing by running away with Ian. I totally understand her motivation, getting this child away from a mentally abusive family for a while to think over his options, but this was a bit drastic. She knew it was wrong, would be considered kidnapping, so she took the precautions of a fugitive - paying only in cash, etc. But it seemed neither Ian or she knew what the goal of the road trip was to be. They seemed to just keep driving on to the next place. Being a long distance driver, it seemed to me the trip took longer than it should. I figured they covered about 1500 miles to the final destination. For me that would be a two day drive, but then most don't have the patience to sit in a car that long, and they did need to do some exploring along the way, and I guess it worked for the plot.

The goal was to help Ian become stronger and realize that adults are not always right, and that he can think for himself: "It was the universal revelation of adolescence, that the adults around you do not have all the answers ... But in Ian it was more than a simple disillusionment. It might well be what would save his life."(p. 288) But there is a second plot line, the one of growth for Lucy herself, and her own disillusionment about her father and his past (he was from Russia). She ended figuring out some things about her own life, and that is always a good thing.

The epilogue was different than most books, a bit quirky, musings on how to catalog this book, herself, with the last paragraphs meant for those who feel they have to read the last page early. (When does one feel tempted to read the last page? You can't do it before you begin the book, because you don't even know what it is about, who the characters are. So it must be at some point, when you are drawn into the story enough, that you want to know if it will end well. I don't regularly read the last page, but sometimes I do, and I did in this book.) Yes, I like books about librarians!

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier (1938)

I have know about this book for a long time, as I handled many copies of the Latvian translation in the Latvian libraries I have organized. Latvians wanted to be well read in world literature, so had many mostly European authors translated into Latvian. (Wonder who made that decision, or encouraged people like Karklins to translate?) Rebeka was one of those books that was in half the Latvian homes in the U.S. I think I picked it up once and tried reading it, but it starts a bit slowly, so I never got very far. But now it was at the audio book store, and my favorite employee there recommended it.

I don't think I will spoiling more than the very beginning of the story by saying, Rebecca is dead from the very beginning of the book. The story is told by an unnamed character, a young woman working as an assistant for a rich woman visiting Monte Carlo. The rich woman gets sick and is taken care by a nurse, giving our heroine time to spend some time with a Maxim de Winter, who has lost his wife - Rebecca. When the rich woman is ready to move on, the man hastily proposes to our young girl, and she is so enamoured by him, that she accepts. After a honeymoon all over Europe, they return to his stately home - Manderley - in England. Maxim never tells her about Rebecca, but we slowly get bits and pieces about Rebecca from various conversations. It was quickly apparent that there was more to the story about the beautiful woman, who loved to entertain. But DuMaurier spins the story out slowly with suspense.

I understand our narrator was very young - in her early 20's, and naieve, but it was very frustrating to me that she didn't "do" anything when she got to Manderley. I can understand the shyness, the reluctance at such a young age, but it sounded like she was a competent assistant, she could have at least worked at something, once she became the mistress of a mansion. Instead, she didn't even care to explore the house, just went to the morning room as she was told the previous Mrs. de Winter had done, and sat the desk and stared at the previous owners handwriting. The only thing she seemed to do was read, knit, and take walks. She could have gotten interested in the garden, talked to the cooks and asked for at least some favorite food of hers, or at the very least reorganized her bedroom and the morning room to be hers in some way, instead of just coming into someone else's space and leaving it the way it is, as you would in a hotel room. Now Maxim is partly to blame, for not giving her some direction, some idea of what she can do as his wife and mistress of the house, since she was not raised for that role, but men can be rather unaware of things like this.

There were some great supporting characters, like the very creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the supportive assistant to Maxim -  Frank Crawly, the young servants Alice and Robert that our main character relates to the best, Maxim's sister Beatrice and her husband. In reading a bit about the novel, I have read that Rebecca is considered one of the early gothic novels, and that Mrs. Danvers character has been used, copied, parodied often. Since I hadn't read this book, all those references would not have made sense to me. I also read that Dark Shadows on TV was based on Rebecca. This was one of my favorite shows in high school.