They Said It: Stacey Abrams

American is a contradictory and precocious country, sir. We have, in a very short period of time, managed to commit venal sins against our own people and offer the world repeat examples of exceptionalism. Americans are greedy, brilliant, ambitious, and compassionate. We like to remind everyone about our genius, and yet our leaders make fun of smart people. In less than two centuries, we took over more than half a continent, placed a man on the moon and invented the Clapper. I enjoyed the contrasts.

While Justice Sleeps

Who is the pawn in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?

I heard the buzz last year surrounding the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit, and I was tempted by the notion of a story set in the world of competitive chess (I don’t play chess but I enjoyed the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was my general reasoning). But before I got around to clicking the Play button, I discovered the series is based on a 1983 book by Walter Tevis, and I thought I’d read the source material first and watch the dramatization afterward. It took a while to work my way to the top of the library holds list (all that Netflix buzz wasn’t only affecting me, apparently) but eventually I got my hands on it.

A quick synopsis: The main character, Beth, grows up in an orphanage where she is deprived of any love or affection but is fed daily tranquilizers (along with all the other orphans) to keep them quiet and compliant. The only avenue of individual expression she finds is in the basement, watching the custodian play one-sided games of chess. He is gruff and dismissive of the little girl, but she is undaunted and continues hanging out as often as possible. Eventually, she makes comments that lead the custodian to realize she is teaching herself to understand how to play chess just by watching him, and he begins to actively teach her. She turns out to be a prodigy, and her talent leads her to the heights of competitive chess even as her warped upbringing has planted the seeds of her own potential destruction within her.

Tevis’ writing is strong and I found the storyline engaging from the start. Beth is not an entirely likable character, but she was easy for me to root for. As I mentioned, I do not play chess myself, but I found the play-by-play of the chess tournaments pretty riveting despite that lack. I never felt lost in jargon or minutiae during those scenes.

With such a positive experience reading the book, I was looking forward to finally watching the Netflix series. I did watch the first episode and it was fine, but I haven’t felt drawn to watch anymore. Tevis created such a strong combination of character, place and plot that seeing it depicted visually seemed superfluous, particularly the scenes that tried to depict Beth’s mental working out of chess moves during a game. In this particular case, I’m content with my own mental movie.

Complicated family dynamics drive the action in ‘Bonecrack’

There are two themes that run through most if not all of Dick Francis’ acclaimed mysteries: All of them involve the sport of horse racing to a greater or lesser degree, and most of them feature protagonists with less than convivial family relationships. Both conditions turn up in Francis’ Bonecrack (1971), which I re-read recently as part of a group read at LibraryThing.

Neil Griffon is a business wunderkind, who accumulated a fortune buying and selling antiques and went on to make a career out of diagnosing and advising struggling businesses. He has a polite but distant relationship with his father, a highly successful horse trainer in Newcastle. When his father suffers an accident that lands him in the hospital with a complicatedly broken leg, Neil steps in to keep the stable running until his father is on his feet again. With his business instincts, it doesn’t take him long to discover that the place is in financial difficulties, a fact his father has been hiding from everyone.

Before Neil has time to absorb all of this, he is kidnapped from his father’s office and forced to hire the mastermind’s son as an apprentice jockey, despite his utter lack of experience. On his own, Neil would be inclined to risk the consequences of refusing such extortion, but there’s his father and the stable’s shaky finances to consider, as well as the fact that the kidnappers cleverly threaten not his own life but those of his father’s horses. How Neil balances giving the kidnappers enough of what they want while finding ways to use the apprentice’s own complicated father-son relationship to his advantage, provides most of the novel’s interest.

This isn’t one of my favorite Francis novels. Because we don’t meet Neil’s father until he’s already laid up in hospital, it’s hard to get a sense of him as a fully formed human being. That makes the estrangement between him and Neil feel somewhat distant rather than visceral, and makes it harder to understand why Neil is so intent on solving his problem with the least amount of damage to his father’s business and reputation. And the mastermind criminal’s villainy is so broadly drawn as to seem cartoonish. But some secondary characters are appealing, including the stable’s female head groom. And Alessandro, aspiring jockey and son of a thug, undergoes the kind of personal transformation under subtle manipulation from Neil that makes him by far the most compelling character in the whole book.

A final note: I do not recommend this book to anyone who recoils at the depiction of animals being killed (a theme Francis would return to in 1987’s Bolt). The violence can seem jarring, especially at the hands of Francis, whose own love and respect for horses makes them full-fledged characters alongside the humans.

Literary links: June 18, 2021

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Here’s a look at some fun stuff I’ve been reading outside of books lately. If you’ve got some articles or websites to recommend, please drop them in the comments below. There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing!

2021 Pulitzer Prizes: A Guide to the Winning Books and Finalists

Here’s a nice roundup of all the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the categories of Fiction, History, Biography, Poetry and General Nonfiction, as announced on June 11. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve read any of these, or if there were other books you read this year that you thought were more worthy. (via The New York Times)

Authors to Earn Royalties on Secondhand Books For First Time

I’ve always felt regret that the buckets of books I’ve bought at secondhand stores and library sales don’t earn their creators any direct money (although I’ve certainly discovered authors from secondhand books whose later works I bought new). Now someone is doing something about it, although in a limited way. I hope this AuthorSHARE program is a success and expands to many other secondhand sellers. (via The Guardian)

Bogus Social Media Outrage Is Making Authors Change Lines in Their Books Now

 This is so ridiculous. And maybe I’m naïve but I refuse to believe that the people making these complaints are doing so in any kind of good faith. Surely no one honestly believes that a character in a novel who has problematic views actually reflects the author’s own values. (via Slate)

Oh, Dewey, Where Would You Put Me?

Especially for Pride Month, a sweet story from a librarian who identifies as queer about the human compulsion to classify both books and people. (via The New York Times)

The Last Printing Press in America

Promise me you’ll take seven minutes out of your day or evening to watch this marvelous little video of the last printing press in the United States where books are handmade, start to finish. Such artistry. (via The Study)

Birth and death in the midst of a pandemic

Julia Power, the narrator of The Pull of the Stars (2020) by Emma Donoghue, is a young maternity nurse in 1918 Dublin. World War I rages on throughout Europe, while the so-called Spanish Influenza stalks prey much closer to home. Nurse Power knows all too much about both plagues: More and more of the hospital staff are succumbing to the flu, while at home her brother Tim, her only surviving relative, has been mute since returning from the war front.

But wasn’t it the whole world’s war now? Hadn’t we caught it from each other, as helpless against it as against other infections? No way to keep one’s distance; no island to hide on. Like the poor, maybe, the war would always be with us. Across the world, one lasting state of noise and terror under the bone man’s reign.

Nursing duties in the tiny makeshift maternity ward meant to segregate flu-stricken expectant mothers from their healthy counterparts have fallen almost entirely on Nurse Julia. She’s been promised a visit from a new doctor soon, but meanwhile does the best she can to care for her four patients, all in various stages of pregnancy and illness. One of the nuns who run the hospital responds to her pleas for more help by bringing her Bridie, a young woman who lives in the convent after being raised in its orphanage. Julia is dubious about the arrangement, but she finds the unschooled Bridie to be a bright and curious assistant eager to make herself useful.

The women in Julia’s charge come from a range of economic strata, but most are grindingly poor, undernourished, dirty, and ignorant of the natural processes underway in their bodies. When one of them dies while giving birth, it’s Nurse Power who, in the absence of a physician, must fill out the death certificate:

If I’d been the one to write the concluding line in the regulation tiny lettering that filled both sides of her sheet, I’d have been tempted to put ‘Worn down to the bone’. Mother of five by the age of twenty-four, an underfed daughter of underfed generations, white as paper, red-rimmed eyes, flat bosom, fallen arches, twig limbs with veins that were tangles of blue twine. Eileen Devine had walked along a cliff edge all her adult life, and this flu had only tipped her over.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between that long-ago pandemic and the one that swept the same globe a little more than 100 years later. Julia observes the same tendencies in people to deny the severity of the disease, to refuse to wear masks, to prioritize themselves over their fellow citizens, that we’ve all witnessed over the past year. It’s small comfort to know the world hasn’t necessarily become more selfish over the past century, and even less comfort to realize it certainly hasn’t become more compassionate. But even in the midst of so much death, Julia draws strength from her young protégé and clings to, if not a sense of optimism at least a refusal to succumb to despair.

As far as I could tell, the whole world was a machine grinding to a halt. Across the globe, in hundreds of languages, signs were going up urging people to cover their coughs. We had it no worse here than anywhere else; self-pity was as useless as panic.

This book is not for the squeamish. If you’ve seen any episodes of Call the Midwife on the BBC or PBS, you know that pregnancy and poverty can be dirty, bloody, gruesome things. Donoghue spares no details in showing her readers the reality behind the process that generates the cute little tykes in all those cheerful diaper commercials. But if you can look reality square in the eye without a soft-focus filter, your reward will be a story that seeks light in the darkness that surrounds us all.

They Said It: Jane Harper

Could this be enough? Kieran wondered. If this was all that was possible? If Brian didn’t remember what he thought Kieran had done, didn’t remember those black days when they lost Finn? If what had happened was gone forever, was that the same as forgiveness? Kieran wasn’t sure, but he thought about it, as they sat there together, looking out at the moon on the water.

‘The Survivors’

Tragedy haunts a small Tasmanian town

Kieran and Mia have brought baby daughter Audrey back to their small Tasmanian hometown for the first time after years of living in Sydney, but it’s hardly a joyous homecoming. Kieran’s father Brian is suffering from dementia and the couple is back to help Verity, Kieran’s mom, pack up the house and find a nursing home for his dad. And even though old friends like Ash McDonald and Olivia Birch have welcomed them back, there’s an undercurrent among the other townspeople that hints at something unpleasant that happened a dozen years ago and led to Kieran leaving in the first place. When a young woman (a visitor to the resort town) is found dead on the beach, the old resentments come bubbling to the surface, threatening to swamp Kieran and his family in tragedies both past and present.

The Survivors (2021) is the latest suspense novel by Jane Harper. I was drawn into the setting and the story as soon as I picked it up, and it kept me turning pages until I finished the book with a sigh less than 24 hours later. As she did previously in her first novel, The Dry (2016) and The Lost Man (2019), Harper creates a sense of place so finely drawn it fairly jumps off the page. I could feel the sea breeze in my hair and taste the salty air blowing in off the beach. The streets of Evelyn Bay, virtually empty after the close of the summer tourist season, echoed with dusty quiet in my mind.

Harper also has a knack for doling out details about what happened in the past that gives the reader just enough information each time to keep them interested instead of frustrated at not knowing exactly what’s going on. It’s not easy to juggle that sort of dual timeline, but Harper keeps her eye on both balls as she tosses first one and then the other into the air. Most of the characters are well drawn, especially Kieran, from whose viewpoint we see most of the events in the novel. And the depiction of Brian’s increasing loss of memory and its effects on his family is painful to read in its honesty and compassion.

Jane Harper has been on my must-read list of authors since I first read The Dry in 2018. Whenever I enthusiastically recommend her to friends I describe her as “the Australian Tana French,” which is probably unfair to both authors. What I mean is both women write books that transcend their genre roots and deserve to take their place among the finest literary fiction. If you haven’t yet read anything by Jane Harper, The Survivors, as a standalone novel, would be a fine place to start.

A mystery within a mystery in ‘The Postscript Murders’

I didn’t know, back in 2019 when I read The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, that it was meant to be the first book in a new series. I was already a big fan of Griffiths’ series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, but I didn’t jibe with her other series featuring Max Mephisto, a magician in 1950s Brighton, England. But I enjoy Griffiths’ writing and looked forward to reading this standalone novel.

I was not disappointed by The Stranger Diaries, a sort of gothic mystery centered on Clare Cassidy, a sixth-form college English teacher whose colleague is found murdered. Lying next to the body is an excerpt of a story by Victorian horror writer R.M. Holland, who happens to be Claire’s research specialty. The narrative shifts among several viewpoints, from Clare to her daughter to the detective sergeant investigating the case, punctuated with lengthy excerpts purportedly from Holland’s most famous story. It’s a nicely atmospheric mystery with appealing characters, not least of whom is DS Harbinder Kaur, a gay woman born in England to parents who emigrated from India. I finished the book feeling vague regret that it wasn’t a series, as I would have happily spent more time with either Clare or Harbinder.

Well. As it turns out, it was the first book in a series. While Clare has only a cameo in the second entry, The Postscript Murders (2020) it hardly matters, as DS Kaur is more than capable of carrying the narrative herself, with a little help from some new acquaintances. The plot again centers on the publishing world, as an elderly woman is found dead in her assisted-living community, apparently of natural causes. But a motley crew of people who knew her, including an elderly fellow who lives across the hall, her Polish caregiver, and a former monk who owns a nearby café, suspect foul play, and they take investigating matters into their own clumsy hands. The key to the mystery, they believe, is in the mysteries — that is, the shelves full of mystery novels by various authors, all of whom expressed gratitude in their books to the now-dead Peggy for her unspecified help.

There’s some lively humor to be found as an exasperated DS Kaur tries to wrangle her amateur band of sleuths into not putting themselves in danger or inadvertently spoiling crucial evidence, but there’s also plenty of tension and old-fashioned clue-finding and suspect-grilling before the case wraps up. It’s an altogether satisfying follow-up to The Stranger Diaries. I’m already looking forward to a third entry in the series. Here’s hoping the Brighton Irregulars show up in that one as well.

‘Poison in the Pen’ leads to murder in the village

Regular readers of the Miss Silver mystery series by Patricia Wentworth know that she finds the cases she ultimately solves in a variety of ways. Occasionally they just pop up wherever she happens to be and she is drawn in. Sometimes a stranger in a train carriage turns into a client in need of her services. More and more often as the series progresses, she gets referrals from previous, satisfied customers.

And a not inconsiderable number come to our intrepid Miss Maud Silver, former governess and current enquiry agent in 1950s England, through her young admirer, Detective Inspector Frank Abbott of Scotland Yard. Between Miss Silver and DI Abbott, they must know nearly every living soul in England, which is certainly a handy attribute for a crime-solver. In Poison in the Pen, the 27th entry in the series, DI Abbott tells her about his recent visit to a distant cousin, a recent widow now living in the village of Tilling Green, where she has been the recipient of some upsetting anonymous letters. Miss Silver agrees to go undercover (which is to say, disguised as the little old lady she actually is) and take a room in the village to see what she can find out. Even before she’s packed her bags she learns that a young woman from the village has drowned (the inquest suggests she killed herself after receiving anonymous letters) and another young woman dies shortly after she arrives in Tilling Green.

Miss Ecles was extremely efficient. It would be unfair to say that she enjoyed the situation, but she certainly enjoyed her own competence in dealing with it.

Solving the most recent murder involves a lot of eliminating suspects through timelines and everyone’s dirty secrets being aired out in the open, the universal condition of living in a small town. The only aspect I didn’t love was that Miss Silver once again puts herself in physical danger by confronting the murderer, which for a woman with such a strong connection to and respect from law enforcement seems to strain credulity. Nonetheless, Poison in the Pen was an enjoyable way to spend an evening, and left me with some choice quotes along the way.

Few people are prepared to subordinate their private feelings to their public duty.