Unsheltered

9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.

 

Summer Mysteries

Magpie Murders
9780062645241_p0_v6_s192x300   The housekeeper trips on the vacuum cleaner cord and falls down the steps to her death; within days her employer’s head is chopped off with a sword, and suspects are everywhere.  Almost every character has the motivation to kill the victims in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders.

Book editor, Susan Ryeland introduces the story with a delicious warning, promising more than the next best seller by one of her popular writers, Alan Conway.  In a clever mystery within a mystery, Horowitz channels Agatha Christie in a crime story with more than red herrings and formulaic clues.  Pay attention when you read or you will miss something.

After the editor’s short preface, the character in her author’s book, Atticus Pund, decides to solve one last crime in the three months the doctor has given him to live.  With his trusty assistant, Fowler, he leads the investigation of the English manor house murders.

If you are a fan of Agatha Christie, you know, however complicated the plot and no matter how many characters you cannot remember, she will save you in the last chapter with her wrap-up and reveal not only the murderer but also the cause and effect.  But, what if the last chapters were missing?

After following the suspects and Pund’s finally declaring he knows who did it, the story suddenly stops and Horowitz drags the reader reluctantly back to the opening scene of the editor reading a book soon to be published.  Not having the last chapter, she begins to summarize the action and decipher the clues to uncover the ending in pages she hopes will be on her desk when she returns to her office.  Happily, just like Christie, she neatly recalls all those meaningful incidents the reader has forgotten.

The story now shifts and gains momentum as the book editor becomes the detective, not only looking for those lost chapters but also possibly looking for the murderer of her author.  As she questions each suspect, she uncovers his idiosyncratic humor placed within each of his mystery books, and the hidden clues about people he knew,  creating characters based on those he would mock.  Horowitz sprinkles the narrative with references to real authors the reader will recognize.

Although I usually hurry through the last pages, wanting the solution – and I did peek at the cryptic last line on the last page (“I had been the detective and now I was the murderer”) – I slowed down for the last hundred pages, reluctant for the story to end.  When it does…each of the murders is solved, and I never suspected whodunit.

Horowitz is a new author for me, and when I researched his background I found not only is he the author of the teen spy series featuring Alex Rider but  was also commissioned by the Conan Doyle Estate  to write two new Sherlock Holmes novel, and commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis.  In Magpie Murders, Horowitz references Sophie Hannah’s authorized reboot of Agatha Christie in The Monogram Murders.  

In an interview with the New York Times, Horowitz said he has already finished his next adult murder mystery, in which he has written himself into the plot. “Of course, I’m the one who is constantly fooled,” he said. He added, “A book does magic without saying, “Pick a card.” A whodunit is, at its best, a huge magic trick that says, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

I can’t wait to read it.

 

Earthly Remains: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802126474_p0_v2_s192x300  Guido Brunetti is the kind of police commissario you would want in your corner.  He is civilized and soft-spoken, reads the classics every night, loves his university professor wife and precocious children.  Guido is an honorable man amidst the corruption.  As a fan of Leon’s series, I enjoy her descriptions of the rhythms of life in Venice and Guido’s family as much as the solving of the crime.

In this twenty-sixth book in the series, Commissario Brunetti needs a break.  After faking a heart attack to save his colleague from attacking a nefarious criminal, Brunetti is sent to the emergency room, and the doctor readily prescribes him two weeks of rest, away from the bureaucracy and crime of Venice.  Conveniently, his wife’s wealthy family owns an isolated villa on a nearby island with a stocked library for the erudite detective (Leon provides titles) and the promise of exercise rowing the deserted canals surrounding it.

Brunetti passes his days with the caretaker of the estate, Davide Casati, an old friend of his father, rowing into the laguna and checking on Casati’s beehives, until the death of bees and a sudden storm shatters his idyll.

Casati is found dead, and Brunetti finds himself back in investigator mode.  As he researches the man’s death, Brunetti finds an insidious cover-up of toxic waste illegally dumped in the laguna, leading him to question whether Casati’s death was accident or murder.  Leon answers in the end, but not without a strong statement about pollution and its effect on the environment.

Related Reviews:   More Guido Brunetti Mysteries