This debut novel from Chicago Tribune journalist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Keller is gripping from page one…reeling the reader in with clear depictions of small town life, adolescence, and brutal, senseless violence. Starting out shortly before a seemingly random shooting, the story introduces us to a mother and daughter who are both at odds with each other. The mother, Bell, works too much, overly dedicated to her job as prosecuting attorney for a small, impoverished county in West Virginia. And her daughter Carla is knee-deep in full-blown teenage rebellion. Actually, that rebellion sets the stage for the story…while waiting for her mother to pick her up from mandatory “anger management” class, Carla witness one of the most violent acts in Acker’s Gap, WV. After this, Carla becomes even more of a problem…not only is she still a behavior problem but now she also has upsetting, conflicting issues with what she witnessed. Bell, in addition to dealing with Carla and with the hunt for the murderer(s), also has other issues contending for space in her frantic world. Keller, as in her Chicago Tribune articles, truly does have a way with words… bringing characters, places and scenarios to life with true, vivid imagery. This was one of the best written mysteries I’ve read in ages! Hopefully, Acker’s Gap, along with Bell, Carla and the other colorful characters of this small town, will be back soon.
Posts Tagged: Books
Well, for one, unlike many European cities, London is seriously multicultural. VERY multicultural. And I’m not talking tourists. I’m talking residents. All races, religions, socioeconomic levels are on view throughout most parts of London. Yes, in some of the swankier sections (Knightsbridge, Mayfair to name two), most of the people have more than their fair share of Pound Sterling in their pockets. But, London is a mammoth, vast city with section upon section of diverse areas. Take Kensington…which borders ritzy area Knightsbridge and is not far from the also ritzy Chelsea. Kensington has more Indian restaurants than British restaurants it seems. The Indian dish Chicken tikka masala, not fish and chips, is even London’s honorary national meal. When we think British, we think Protestant and white. In the countryside, maybe…but not in London.
Let’s move on to London’s fascinating history. Unlike our cities in this country, London has recorded history dating back thousands of years. Yes…thousands. From the Romans who founded the city as Londinium to the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors, every corner of London bears some history worth repeating. The formally-walled “City of London” is the present-day financial center of the capital and is one of the 32 boroughs of London. There are still places within The City, or Square Mile, as it is sometimes called, where you can see some of the London Wall, first built around The City by the Romans. Just to the east of The City lies Whitechapel, the former stomping grounds of that vicious deviant Jack the Ripper, who killed at least five prostitutes in the late 1880s. And on the other side of the River Thames (which throughout much of history, was wider than the present-day river running through London today), there is the George Inn in Southwark…a pub that can date it’s history back to the 17th Century. Yes, that’s right…the 1600s. No, the George we see today is not the exact same one from the 1600s, but there has been a pub on that site for almost 400 years! That’s a lot of pints!
Lastly, let’s look at London’s cultural side. Most major cities can boast opera houses and a smattering of theaters and maybe one or two concert venues. But, London is the HOME of the stage production…with its West End surpassing our Broadway in both longevity, history and profitability. Many famed Broadway productions began as West End productions…and many acclaimed actors and actresses got their start on the London stage.
As the Summer Olympics approach (the opening ceremonies are on July 27), we thought everyone might want to get into a LONDON frame of mind to prepare. Here are some books and authors that might fit the bill:
Recently, I ventured to Scotland for “holiday” (as the Brits call their vacations), armed with my iPad, loaded with an Ian Rankin mystery. Rankin, a Scot, is best known for his Inspector Rebus series, set in the gritty underbelly of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. I’ve read quite a few Rankin books, both from his lengthy John Rebus series and his standalone thrillers, and have always been mystified at what drives an author to set story after story in the same town (there are 19 Rebus books in the series, which the author ended in 2007).
Once in the historic city, I began to see what inspired Rankin to write Rebus in Edinburgh for 20 years (his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987). Edinburgh, like any major city, is chaotic and cluttered and dirty and crowded and on and on. But, UNLIKE most major cities (especially the ones on THIS side of the pond), Edinburgh is filled with a captivating and fascinating history around every corner. And, because of its hilly, winding streets and dark gray buildings (the porous stone has absorbed years of soot and dirt), not to mention the pretty regular mist and/or fog that hangs over the atmosphere, Edinburgh lends itself perfectly to the criminal element. This is not to say I encountered any nefarious sorts in Edinburgh (hardly! — unless you count men in kilts nefarious) but I can understand why Rankin’s Rebus feels so at home here…fighting crime in a city from another time…feeling almost like another world. So, if you want to visit Edinburgh, you can either hop a plane at O’Hare or you can pick up a John Rebus mystery by Ian Rankin. Both give off the same eerie effect, but one will be MUCH easier on your wallet (whether in British Pounds or dollars!).
Oh, and Rebus is also available as a TV series on DVD: the first set with John Hannah as Rebus and the three more sets with Ken Stott as the Edinburgh inspector.
Wickham scores again…this time with a fun, highly biting commentary on the social strata in England. Not unlike my favorite author Edith Wharton (who wrote about society in early 1900s New York), Wickham here uses her fine writing skills to make sweeping and also pointed gestures about the differences and familiarities between the middle and upper classes. Not that I would compare Wickham’s writing or plots to Wharton, but Wickham’s finger is definitely on the pulse of what makes society both tick and falter here. The story takes us to a fine manor house in English Countryside (but not far enough out maybe). Caroline and Patrick, the manor house, nouveau riche owners, invite several couples over for a weekend-long tennis party, including a stuffy man and his new rich wife and then former neighbors from their old “poorer” neighborhood out on the outskirts of London. What transpires is funny, sad but most of all a I’m sure pseudo-realistic view of what goes on behind closed doors of those large stately homes. LOTS of fun to read and educational as well for those interesting in climbing to social ladder!
One of the better novels I have read in a while…this one makes you laugh, cry and long for your friends. Rayner, a Brit, weaves a compelling tale filled with sudden loss, friendship, gradual loss, sexual identity and all sorts of relationships. The main characters are the storytellers here…Karen who experiences sudden loss right at the beginning of the book, Anna, who is Karen’s friend and is in the midst of a doomed relationship with a man with dependency problems, and Lou who enters Karen and Anna’s lives through sad happenstance and who is dealing with her own private identity battles. All of these characters on their own would make compelling fiction, but all three of them create a vivid and dynamic tale that not only holds the reader’s interest, but inspires them as well. An excellent novel!
From Chicago author Libby Fischer Hellmann, here’s a top-notch mystery with a strong female main character, Georgia Davis. She’s feisty, proud, confident and able. She’s a good PI who isn’t a “superhero” type…meaning she get afraid and is not ashamed to show it. In Doubleback, Davis gets involved with a kidnapping/murder/financial malfeasance plot that takes her from Chicago to the Arizona-Mexico border. Hellmann’s writing style is good, though I think sometimes she can be a bit choppy. But, the great character construction and well-laid-out plot make up for this. Though the plot can be a bit far-fetched (as most thrillers and mysteries can be), Davis also seems believable in her role…meaning she doesn’t just happen to “fall” into situations, rather the escapades she finds herself in are essential to the plot. I would read more tales about Georgia Davis and her sometimes partner-in-crime Ellie Foreman (Hellmann does a series with Foreman as more of a primary character too).
Knowing I’m always in the market for a good mystery, especially a good British one, I recently got a recommendation to read the Ruth Galloway series from Elly Griffiths. And what I discovered is a fantastic new writer who weaves an excellent British mystery with an archaeological spin. Set in the eastern English county of Norfolk, Ruth is an archeologist who gets called in by the local authorities to check the age of a skeleton that was found. This find leads to Ruth getting emerged in a missing person’s case and a whole web of mystery and murder. I VERY MUCH liked the chemistry between Ruth and the inspector who works with her…Nelson. And a surprise at the end of the book means that their relationship is only beginning. Nelson is the kind of “man-you-love-to-hate…” meaning he’s gruff and harsh, with a sweet side and a heart of gold. And Ruth herself is a refreshing female mystery character, who is less amateur sleuth and more “right place, right time” gal. She never ASKS to be involved in the police investigation…it just sort of happens. And Ruth is full of spunk and vitality, though she’s more than her fair share of self-effacing. I will read more from Griffiths and look forward to where she leads Ruth and Nelson next!
One of the best beginnings of a mystery (historical or otherwise) I’ve read in a long while. I was just literally fixated for the first 100 pages. After that, we gets a little too convoluted with less-than-necessary characters and too many plotlines that pop up and lead nowhere. But, it is a must read for those first chapters! The story revolves around nurse Bess Crawford who is working the frontlines during WWI when she stumbles upon a body that was not shot, but rather had its neck broken. On her way to report this, she faints and succumbs to the Spanish flu, an epidemic that taking almost as many lives as the war. Once she is better, she finds out that the only people who know of this “mysterious” body are dead, most likely having been killed. Bess is a fabulously feisty character who is almost as good of an amateur sleuth as she is a nurse. A mother and son writing team work under the pseudonym Charles Todd and their writing is highly vivid and strong and the way they create the mounting suspense leaves the reader craving more. I could not put this one down. I will continue to read this Bess Crawford series for sure!
First of all, I don’t want to give the impression I am pitting these authors against each other. Anytime I see “vs.” between two names, I think of an anticipated boxing match. My goal here is to compare, non-violently, these two historical romantic suspense authors and help readers decide if one or both of these authors are for them.
First, Deanna Raybourn, who I have loved since her first book featuring Lady Julia Grey, Silent in the Grave, is an author with an exceedingly light touch. A light touch in writing style…a light touch when it comes to Lady Julia and a light touch when it comes to the story. Nothing ever gets too dark or threatening here. Even when Lady Julia or another character, such as her P.I. husband Nicholas, encounters a dangerous and potentially fatal situation, Raybourn always shines a little air of affability into the mix. Saying that, this does not mean I do not savor everything Lady Julia does. I do and I try my best to wait patiently for her next book. All I’m saying is that there is no sense of continual doom with Raybourn like there are with some suspense writers. She keeps it light…and I keep reading.
Onto Tasha Alexander, who I first discovered at a mystery writer’s conference where I bought a book and had Alexander sign it based on hearing her speak. But, the book sat on my shelves for over a year until Julia Keller, the Chicago Tribune’s Cultural Critic, wrote a piece on Alexander (December 4, 2011, Arts and Entertainment) for Keller’s LitLife column. So, I got the book, A Fatal Waltz, out, dusted it off and began, quite pleased I did. Unlike Raybourn, Alexander’s writing style is a little more refined, a little more literary. I hesitate to say more polished, since I think Raybourn is a good writer, but Alexander’s entire style does enhance the affluent world that her main character, Lady Emily Ashton, lives in. Both Raybourn’s Lady Julia and Alexander’s Lady Emily are wealthy Victorian London crime-solving ladies, but the way Alexander writes her tales includes the required upper-class effect. Does this mean I like Alexander more? No. It means that when I’m looking for something lighter, I will reach for Raybourn and Lady Julia. When I am ready for something more meaty and more challenging, I’ll pull out another Alexander and Lady Emily.
Both writers create fiercely strong ladies who enjoy solving crimes, even though it’s highly unladylike in late 1800s London. Both writers weave compelling stories that hold the reader’s interest from start to finish. Basically, both writers excel in this genre (or is historical romantic suspense a SUBgenre?). Try both and see for yourself.