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fmagraphicIn July I joined the #Firemanalong, a group read hosted by Care’s Books and Pies and The Capricious Reader. The Fireman is the newest book from Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, about whom I’ve been most curious.

I was all set for this to be a new favorite, especially after reading the opening page, in which Hill cites as “inspiration”: J.K. Rowling, P.L. Travers, Julie Andrews … and Ray Bradbury. Excellent!

Hill has fun with his allusions, one moment citing Samuel Beckett and then MTV VJ Martha Quinn. There are also nods to Dumbledore, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Graham Greene, Mary Poppins, and, of course, zombies.

The Fireman starts out much like one of King’s novels in that it grabs you straightaway. It was an exciting and addictive page-turner … right until about page one hundred and forty-something, when it really slowed down. Considering the book was 747 pages, I wish Hill had kept up the thrill ride a bit longer.

The first part deals with an outbreak of a mysterious epidemic of “Dragonscale,” which causes its victims to self-combust. Hill offered a plausible and scientific explanation for the disease and that kept me invested.

Our heroine is a plucky nurse named Harper (after another of Hill’s favorite authors) who volunteers as a nurse and ultimately gets infected.

The scenes of mass hysteria and of the unraveling of society were believable and suspenseful. There’s a compelling, vivid urgency that makes you think, wow, this could happen. There are also several buzzy cameos: George Clooney, President Obama, and Glenn Beck.

fireman in boxIt wasn’t until Harper joined a sort of commune for the infected, Camp Wyndham, that the book stepped into the slow lane and became more of a morality tale. I felt Hill had pulled a bait-and-switch—I wanted more of the excitement that he had teased me with for over 100 pages.

Instead, I got lots and lots (and lots) of backstory! I don’t know why Hill decided to go the route of having all the subplots and complications relayed second-hand. Hill is a master of twists and turns, but this genius was somewhat diluted because instead of experiencing it … we had it retold by other characters. I like my suspense real-time.

In particular, the Harold Cross subplot and the prison story would have been so gripping to read as they occurred. I cannot think why we had to hear about them postmortem? I wanted to be in there with the prisoners, looking around and fearful of what might happen next. What did happen would have been much more chilling to me if I didn’t already know who would survive. Also, the Mazz and Father Story question would have been spookier and more complicated if I had first known and identified with Mazz.

The Harold Cross thread reminded me of something from 24—the stray character who makes a series of judgment errors that escalate. I just wish I had gotten to experience that paranoia and tension. Likewise, I would have cared more about Cross’s fate.

Even if Hill were not King’s son I would be contrasting this to Under the Dome, in which King had several subplots spinning out at once via many lead characters. Michael Crichton also did this very well.

Since the action was elsewhere, the whole camp kibbutz storyline got stale for me. I wanted to know more about what was going on beyond their hideaway. The state of Maine had burned to a crisp, but what about the rest of the country? The rest of the world?

The camp dynamics of, say, who got soggy oatmeal versus who got fancy coffeecake seemed a bit trifling when there was a worldwide catastrophe going on.

Also, I felt a bit let down by the ending. I’m not asking for things to be tidied up and happy. I loved how Christopher Nolan tantalized us with the conclusions of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. (I even loved the LOST finale!)

But, after 747 pages, I do expect some sort of pay off. This felt like it ended midstream with little resolution and almost no reveals as to what was next for Harper—or for the world. It was like ending halfway through Homer’s Odyssey and just as frustrating as the fuzzy, fade-to-black of The Sopranos.

Having said all this, I must add that Hill is a very good writer and (when he wants) can make for some addictive reading. If he had presented his subplots (with their creepy twists) firsthand and given them the same sense of urgency as the first one hundred pages, then The Fireman would likely have been *the* blockbuster, can’t-put-down book of the summer. Hill definitely has that potential.

Lots of the #Firemanalong readers loved the book! They posted all sorts of shrewd observations and fun reactions on twitter. Indeed, for me, the #Firemanalong was the best part of this read.

 

#Firemanalong at Care’s Books and Pies

#Firemanalong at The Capricious Reader

#Firemanalong on twitter

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SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

SPQR on a manhole in Rome.

On my first visit to Rome, what most astounded me was that “S.P.Q.R.” was actually imprinted on manholes in the street. I had expected to be awed by a sense of antiquity from the Coliseum, the Forum, and the many ruins sprinkled about the city. But, for me, standing right on the famous Roman phrase that I had studied in school was a palpable ‘history comes alive’ moment.

So I was most eager to delve into Mary Beard’s new book on ancient Rome, SPQR.

Note, this is a political history of Rome. There is an in-depth look at Pompey the Great, and also his namesake city of Pompeii, but very little about Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. Beard doesn’t bother with the importance of Roman Concrete or the development of aqueducts (covered extensively elsewhere). Instead she focuses on social and political innovations.

For example, while conquered peoples were typically brought back to Rome as slaves, Beard explains that a large number of these slaves would be freed within their own lifetimes. Some would even gain citizenship, living out their days in the city of Rome or returning to native lands.

Indeed, the definition and scope of Roman Citizenship continually evolved and expanded, adding to the cosmopolitan mix of the city and the empire. This idea of shared citizenship—that one could be a citizen of a province and also a citizen of Rome—was a totally new concept that fueled military success. This countered a longstanding tradition of parochial allegiance to city states or regions, setting a precedent that continues in nations today.

Beard also gives us a fresh look at the Romus and Remulus myth and how this founding story of fratricide was mirrored in the repeated violence of Roman politics. Well before Julius Caesar, murder was a method of the Roman Republic. One election was broken up when a cabal of angry senators bludgeoned Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters. Sulla marched on Rome with an army (twice), sparking a civil war that killed civilians in the streets and senators sitting in the senate house. Even Pompey the Great was decapitated by supporters of the up-and-coming Caesar. “His life lasted longer than his power,” Beard quotes Cicero.

This only intensified with the rise of the Roman Empire. Assassination was the de facto method of succession. “Vespasian in 79 CE was the only emperor in the first two dynasties to die without any rumors of foul play surfacing.”

SPQR coverIndeed, SPQR at times reads like a House of Cards take on Roman history, as Beard narrates with suspense the political wranglings, betrayals, and changing power players over the centuries. I found all of this particularly compelling—and relevant—in light of the recent political upheaval and shifting alliances in the United Kingdom following the Brexit vote.

Despite the intensity of her subject matter, Beard keeps it lively and readable.

She reminds us that Commodus was the emperor portrayed in the popular movie and Oscar Best Picture winner Gladiator. We also learn that famed British Celtic warrior Boudicca (who led an uprising against the Romans) is buried near Platform 10 of Kings Cross station. Nor is Beard too scholarly to resist calling Arminius “Herman the German.”

My only complaint is that, despite the title, Beard doesn’t really addresss the phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” aka S.P.Q.R., except for a brief mention in the introduction.

I’m still curious about the provenance of this fabled motto, which means “the Senate and the People of Rome” and how much it was really averred in its day.

Nevertheless, SPQR is an informative, fascinating, and engrossing read which I highly recommend.

Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor & Classics Scholar

Mary Beard’s Blog: A Don’s Life

Mary Beard on Twitter: @wmarybeard

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I love my sleep mask.

Sleep mask and comfy pillows.

Arianna Huffington dedicates her new book, The Sleep Revolution, to “all those who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Here, here! We love (and need) sleep, but so many of us don’t seem to get enough of it. It’s brutal to walk around in a sleep-starved haze.

There was a time when I thought of sleep as a luxury, and, like many people, I managed to get by with attitude … and coffee.

Eventually, I woke up (pun intended) and realized that sleep is a magic tool we are given to help us confront challenges and pursue our goals.

Huffington gives a pretty scary example of how she collapsed from exhaustion and shattered her cheek bone. That was the epiphany which sparked her on a mission of sleep evangelism.

Her book looks at sleep via scientific, historical, medical, and cultural perspectives. Most of the information isn’t new, but—much like her namesake website—Huffington aggregates it all in a very readable manner, with fascinating tidbits perfect for cocktail party banter. For example, sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy a whopping $63 billion annually. And, before artificial light, our ancestors slept in two blocks instead of one long night. She also cites evidence that links improper sleep to maladies from diabetes to Alzheimer’s to weight gain.

The Sleep Revolution serves as a call to action in the face of what Huffinton calls “our current sleep crisis.” She argues that this is a serious health issue that we should address just like any health issue. Indeed, it’s scary how many people complain, or even boast, about lack of sleep. How did insomnia become our default?

Huffington also offers strategies and advice for “mastering sleep.” One of the best tips is making it a comfortable ritual—cosy pjs, lavender tea, a hot bath. This sounds corny, but if you practice compartmentalizing work thoughts and stressful items away from bedtime, it will become a habit. I went from dreading bedtime (anxiety that I wouldn’t nod off) to looking forward to it each night.

Still, Huffington reminds us, just because snoozing can be a pleasurable routine, we must remember that it is a necessity—not an indulgence.

The book argues for a new approach to sleep in the workplace—a rise in naps and nap rooms and a pullback on the 24/7 cycle of work-related texts and emails.

sleep revolution coverHuffington contends that getting the full forty winks is crucial to success. “Sleep is my weapon,” she quotes Jennifer Lopez. Other prominent sleep proponents include supermodel Karlie Kloss, tennis god Roger Federer, and investment mogul Warren Buffet. Speaking of business, there’s a whole chapter on successful men and women who pointedly get eight hours each night. Oh, and the legendary Tom Brady? He goes to bed at 8:30 pm.

I highly recommend this informative and fascinating read. It’s sparking a dialogue and—I hope—a new attitude toward the urgency of proper sleep. Bravo to Arianna for shining the spotlight on this issue. It’s proactive, not lazy, to get your sleep!

If you want to get more zzzs, this book will help motivate you. And if you are in the “sleep is for wimps” camp, it might just open your eyes … or help you close them.

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Very Long EngagementI greatly enjoyed A Very Long Engagement by Sébastien Japrisot, but for me it was a bit of a bait-and-switch book. It starts off very much like a suspense novel, with tension and mounting dread. I found myself completely riveted by the first chapter in which French soldiers are marching through one of the First World War’s infamous trenches.

“Watch out for the wire.”

Indeed, Japrisot is known for his crime writing and has been nicknamed the “Graham Greene of France.”

But then, the novel takes on a more quiet and reflective tone—somewhat the inverse of say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which begins with more reserved prose and moves to breathless action at Dunkirk.

I had a little trouble shifting gears with Japrisot. I flew through the opening scene, and then it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the rest of the book. This is not a subway read but is best enjoyed if you can spend some time sinking into it.

Overall, I found A Very Long Engagement to be rewarding, moving, and thought-provoking—somewhat reminiscent of a Marcel Pagnol novel in the sense that it offers a glimpse into this fleeting, evolving moment in France. The characters are trying to put their lives back together while dealing with grief, hardship, and the aftershocks of the Great War. This novel feels especially resonant as we head into the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict this July.

Now I am eager to see the film.

Now, I am eager to see the film.

A thread of mystery pulls us through the story, as the heroine Mathilde searches to find out what happened to her fiancé Manech, who has been reported “killed in the line of duty.” She goes on a scavenger hunt, sifting through a tangle of clues gleaned by word-of-mouth, letters from survivors, ads placed in newspapers, and the work of a private detective. I won’t offer any other plot details, except to say that the ending offered a satisfying resolution that was not predictable.

I went back to reread the first chapter and found that I had missed this lovely, layered transition from the trenches to Mathilde, which also somewhat encapsulates the essence of this book:

“There was still that wire, mended whenever it broke with whatever came to hand, a wire that snaked its way through all the trenches, through all the winters, now up at the top, now down at the bottom, across all the lines …

Mathilde has seized hold of it. She holds it still. It guides her into the labyrinth from which Manech has not returned.”

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

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I just loved the cover!

I picked Arabian Nights & Days by Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz to start off the Dewey’s Readathon in April, which fell on a drizzly, cheerless morning. As I love to travel to exotic and faraway places via books, I thought a trip to medieval Arabia would offer a nice antidote to such a rainy day.

Mahfouz wrote this as both a sequel and a tribute to the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the book picks up the day after Shahrzad has told her last story. Though billed as novel, it’s really a collection of interwoven short stories that feature many of the same characters as the original fables. I do suggest reading them in order as there are a progression of subplots.

Though the stories are told as episodic vignettes, I found myself invested in the fates of the characters—particularly of the families of both Sannaan al-Gamali and Gamasa al-Bulti—as they continued to make cameos. I would’ve liked to have seen more of Shahrzad and her sister, Dunyazad, the only two female characters that are even remotely developed.

Despite the enchanting prose, the magical realism of his setting, and familiar characters like Aladdin and Sinbad, these stories feature somewhat dark and jarring plotlines. It felt a bit like the jolt one might get by turning to Grimm’s Fairy Tales after seeing the sugar-coated Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella (and Aladdin for that matter).

Except for one charming love story, Mahfouz uses his allegorical world to spotlight modern-day problems such as police corruption, dirty politics, unjust rulers, greedy power struggles, assassinations, and the misfortunes of the downtrodden. Genies here do not seem to grant wishes but rather wreak havoc on feckless humans, forcing them to do things against their will.

“We love what you love, but between us and people is a barrier of destinies,” explains the genie Singam.

I’m sure there are many layers and allusions that I missed because I am not versed in One Thousand and One Nights—so I would especially recommend this book to readers who have an appreciation for that classic. Still, I enjoyed being transported by Mahfouz’s alluring prose to the fragrant courtyard of the Café of Emirs, to eavesdrop on conversations and people-watch vicariously.

The 2014 TBR Pile Challenge

Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

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other typistThe Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell is a twisty, noir page-turner. Fans of Gillian Flynn will definitely enjoy this book, which feels like Gone Girl set in the 1920s. Actually, strike that. The plot is totally different, nor is The Other Typist so dark. It’s snazzy!

What I mean is that Rindell also offers us an unreliable (and rather unsettling) narrator, Rose Baker, who spins out an alluring, slow-boiled plot.

Rindell sets the story in a New York City police precinct in 1923, when women have only recently been brought in as typists. I won’t divulge any other plot details, as the reveals will be best enjoyed firsthand.

The writing crackles with a sort of stylized, art-deco feel:

“We were headed into the long black nights of winter, and although it was only four o’clock, outside a cloudy sky was already turning from ash to soot. And yet inside the office there was still something vital, the peculiar sort of kindling that comes from human activity buzzing away in the falling dark of dusk. The electric lights still glowed, and the office thrummed with the sounds of telephones, voices, papers, footsteps, and the syncopated clacking of many typewriters all being operated at once.”

I was a tad concerned when I saw The Great Gatsby cited in the author’s acknowledgements page. That is sacred text. However, this is not an overblown attempt at replicating Fitzgerald. (Phew.) Though this would be a good pick for those who enjoyed the new film version of The Great Gatsby.

The Other Typist reads much like a paean to film noir classics of the 1940s and 1950s. At one point Rose says of another character, “Gib and I were building up a slow tolerance for each other, the way some people slowly build a tolerance for a specific kind of poison.”

Overall, The Other Typist is clever, atmospheric, and unpredictable. There’s a lot of buzz online about the ending—so avoid the spoilers!

The Other Typist

Suzanne Rindell

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Jane Austen Game TheoristWe all know that reading Jane Austen is good for you. Scientists at Stanford proved this last fall with MRI scans that showed reading Austen’s work boosted neural activity and even increased blood flow to the brain. Now, it turns out, we Janeites have also been unwittingly indulging in sophisticated Game Theory Economics.

Yes, Game Theory—the very discipline which garnered John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) the Nobel Prize in Ecnomics.

UCLA professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe argues this in his new book, Jane Austen Game Theorist.

Instead of bothering with chalk boards and lengthy variable-laden formulas, Austen imparts economic wisdom via the subtext of Marianne Dashwood’s swoons—indeed, Chwe cites this as an example. Who knew that while I was reading about Fanny Price deciding which necklace to wear, I was actually engaging in “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation.”

As I reread Pride and Prejudice for the 200th Anniversary, I will be subconsciously learning the mathematical analysis of strategic thinking. Just like when moms puree broccoli to hide in brownies. And all this time I thought I hated math.

Seriously though, tremendous kudos to Chwe for giving us yet another way to examine Austen’s work. If more economists read Austen, perhaps we could finally settle the debate over the Laffer Curve.

Chwe’s emphasis, however, is more on the political ramifications of Austen’s strategic thinking, and I must say I am fascinated by his approach. According to Chwe, Jane’s observations and theories can be applied to the Cold War stalemate, as well as to military mistakes made in both Vietnam and Iraq. And that’s just what I have gleaned from reviews and excerpts … I cannot wait to actually get my hands on this book!

Janeites, this would be a perfect pick for The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013.

All this does make me feel better about myself, mathematically speaking. Even though I struggled with trigonometry in high school, I made it through each of Austen’s books twice so I must have actually been a math prodigy. I’m also feeling rather smug about opting out of ‘Intro to Economics’ in college for a course that compared Northanger Abbey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No joke—great class!)

One can’t help but feel bad for those poor souls who actually studied economics. Why bother with the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times when you can just read Emma? Or Jane Austen, Game Theorist?

Given that prominent economists like Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) endorse this book, I do wonder if the all-knowing Jane also offers clues as to how I should invest my IRA? I will have to keep this in mind as I dig into Jane Austen, Game Theorist, and when I reread Persuasion.

Economics, Game Theory, and Jane Austen via PBS NewsHour

Game Theory: Jane Austen Had it First via The New York Times

More Austen on WordHits…

The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks: Boring to Brilliant

How Did I Not Know about Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

So Glad Jane Austen Made Me Do It

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Spoiler Alert: This Book Has No Ending

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Sinners and the Sea picSinners and the Sea tells the story of Noah’s Ark from the viewpoint of his unnamed wife. It’s a fascinating and beautiful read. The novel has been favorably likened to The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, which I liked … but this book I loved.

Noah’s tale barely takes up four pages of the Old Testament (Genesis 6:9). Kanner fills in the gaps with an impassioned look at what life was like for Noah’s wife, the family’s struggle with the sinners around them, and the giant, terrifying adventure of the ark. The wife is a sympathetic narrator and quickly drew me into her story.

Kanner does a wonderful job conjuring up this ancient world with spare but vivid prose.

“He turned and ran across the flat, sun-scorched earth so quickly that he sent up a cloud of dust. It seemed to pursue him as he got smaller and smaller and eventually disappeared into it.”

Kanner evinces the biblical tone and feel of the period without being stilted or dragged down by it. “Three hundred goats do not make a man a prophet,” says Noah. He is portrayed as rather gruff and rigid, but for me this lent authenticity to the book. Noah would have to be pretty hardened to take on such a task, knowing that everyone else in the world will die. Also, I really liked the shifting dynamic among the three brothers: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Kanner plays out the tension as the local villagers, who initially ridicule the ark, and then grow fearful when it nears completion. Once the waters come, the story takes on the panic of the Titanic in reverse, as people desperately try to crawl up the sides and climb aboard. Noah’s wife struggles with the sight of these people—the sinners—swirling and crying for help in the roiling seas. As the rains continue, she laments “I never knew how sharp water could be.”

After several weeks adrift, Noah admits to his wife that he misses the sinners. We realize this is partly because they are so alone and partly because preaching to them gave Noah a sense of purpose.

There are subplots and characters that I have not even touched upon, as I don’t like to give away too much. Suffice it to say, that Kanner did a great job of injecting human emotion (and some action-packed excitement) into a story that has become so rote in our culture. I also loved the way she wove in mythology: Methuselah, the long-lost mammoths, and the Nephilim race of giants.

Rebecca KannerFull disclosure, I met Rebecca Kanner a few years ago at a writers’ conference. (This did not influence my opinion. I bought the book myself and was not asked for a review.) Through Facebook, I’ve learned that she has a passion for literary authors such as Charles Baxter, Hilary Mantel, and Louise Erdrich. But, like me, she also devoured G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and The Hunger Games trilogy.

I was especially curious to see what kind of book she would write. In Sinners and the Sea, Kanner has given us a sharply drawn work of literary fiction that is also an addictive read.

Sinners and the Sea

Rebecca Kanner

Rebecca Kanner on Facebook

Noah’s Story in Genesis 6:9

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I happened upon Death in August by Marco Vichi as I was browsing about for an Indie Thursday purchase. I couldn’t resist the cover, a vintage Florence streetscape with the famed Palazzo Vecchio clock tower in the distance, all diffused by a red-orange sunset. The cover, and the title, seemed perfect to me, as it was of those sultry days in late August.

This is the first of several mysteries based in Florence, Italy, featuring Inspector Bordelli, and I’m psyched (as always) to have discovered a great new detective series. I’d like to compare the inspector to Hercule Poirot, but Bordelli is not at all fastidious or dignified. He actually reminded me more of an Italian Columbo: rumpled, ruminative, and tenacious. Although the victim looked to have died in an asthma attack, Bordelli “couldn’t get the image of the woman’s corpse out of his mind. Murder, he thought. Leaning his back against the wall, he breathed deeply and looked up at the sky, seeking the moonlight behind the thick clouds.”

Like Columbo, Bordelli circles around a few key suspects, playing a sort of cat-and-mouse game as he closes the trap around the guilty party. This is a slow-burning potboiler, and Vichi keeps the thread of suspense going. But, there are no formulaic cliffhangers or gratuitous ‘evil-twin’ plot surprises—phew.

The book also reminded me of P.D. James‘s works, in that it is well written and heavy on atmosphere. “The sky had opened and the moon was visible. [Bordelli] stopped in front of the gate and looked at the villa from a distance, fascinated by the decay wrought by time. It pleased him to see that things, and not only people, suffered the wear and tear of age.”

Vichi gives us wonderful glimpses of life in Florence, as Bordelli attends a funeral in the famed Santa Croce, lunches at his special table in a trattoria’s kitchen, and drives about the hilly, circuitous streets. “Reaching the Lungarno, he crossed the Ponte alle Grazie and turned, as always to look up at the church of San Miniato al Monte, his favourite. Its white façade always had the same effect, whether from up close or far away.”

Set in the 1963, the book captures a time when Florence was quiet and deserted in August, and those who remained lay awake swatting mosquitoes amid the fumes of zampironi coils. “It was almost nine, always the most melancholy time of the day for Bordelli. Down on the street, somebody called after his dog. The swallows were gobbling up insects, flying low and screeching between the buildings.”

Also, as it’s the 1960s, Bordelli has vivid and troubling memories of his time fighting the Nazis in World War II, some of which are shared in flashbacks. These memories are fueled by the real-life experiences of the author’s father who regaled him with vivid accounts from when Vichi was a little boy. In fact the Inspector’s eager and dogged protégé, Gavino Piras, turns out to be the son of one of his comrades-in-arms. Upon first meeting him, Bordelli “felt at once very sad and very pleased.”

From Sicily, Piras is one of the many compelling characters we meet in Death in August. However, there aren’t any developed women characters. They are either decorous, aged signoras or lusty gals whom Bordelli oogles. There are a few awkward, and pretty icky, moments. Inside joke, the inspector’s name is translated as ‘Commissioner Brothels’ on the author’s website.

Notwithstanding, I highly recommend this read. I’m eager to delve into book two, Death and the Olive Grove. I know there are UK paperback editions out there. But, I just loved the look and feel of the Pegasus Crime hardcover (the U.S. debut) so I hope it won’t be long before they publish the next one.

Death in August: Spotlight in Publishers Weekly

Marco Vichi Interviewed by Publishers Weekly

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Moonshine here does not mean Tennessee hooch, though this being Wodehouse, the characters tend to reach for potent liquid bracers at key plot points. Here, moonshine takes the British connotation of nonsense or silliness. Certainly, this novel has a carefree absurdity which reminded me a bit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Wodehouse was devoted to Shakespeare.) There is a cast of wacky characters all gathered at Walsingford Hall, which is repeatedly described as one of England’s ugliest country houses, “in all its revolting hideousness.” The summer retreat proves a hotspot for all sorts of mix-ups, including crossed identities, romantic entanglements, and chases down country lanes, as well as through the many closets of Walsingford Hall.

The story starts off on a languorous summer day. The guests idled over croquet and sunbathed by the river, while cows grazed in the distance. To this, enters Miss Prudence Whitaker, “who spoke in a cold crisp voice which sounded in the drowsy stillness like ice tinkling in a pitcher.” We soon learn that Prudence is somewhat of a hotel manager, and these are paying guests. Her boss, Sir Buckstone Abbot, is short on cash, and the setup is a bit like Downton Abbey meets the “Island of Misfit Toys.”

The brooding Sir Buckstone does not feel that he is getting paid enough to have these interlopers trampling about his house, drinking his port, and asking for waffles at breakfast. “A bee buzzed past his nose and he gave it a cold look.” Indeed, his financial predicament had engendered in him a great admiration for the money-squeezing character of Shylock.

Sir Buckstone’s daughter Jane has her own troubles. “It ruffles a girl of sensibility, who shortly after breakfast has heard the man she loves called a twerp and … a few hours later, at luncheon, described as a kickworthy heel.”

There are also two befuddled, and rather Bertie Wooster-esque, brothers named Vanringham. Joe, an aspiring playwright, spends his time doodling mustaches on the statues that decorate the grounds. “There is nothing like creative work in fine weather for releasing the artistic spririt.” His brother Tubby, also a daydreamer, “from the age of fourteen onward, had been unable to see a girl on the distant horizon without wanting to send her violets and secure her telephone number.”

Into this, pushes in the brash, uninvited, “blighter” of an American relative, Mr. Sam Bullpitt, who is actually a process server chasing down one of the aforementioned Vanringhams.

The other guests serve as obstacles and comic relief in this roundabout game of chase. Upon discovering that Tubby (last seen attempting to read a dullish mystery called “Murder at Bilbury Manor”) has disappeared, Joe interrupts the golf practice of an aged Mr. Waugh-Bonner.

“‘My name is Vanringham. My brother was sitting under the cedar.’

‘Hey? Oh, you mean that young fellow? You his brother?’

‘Yes, Have you seen him?’

‘Of course I have seen him.’

‘Where?’

‘Sitting under the cedar,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, with the manner of a man answering an easy one, and turned to address his ball.

It seemed for a moment as if there might be murder at Walsingford Hall as well as at Bilbury Manor, but, with a powerful effort, Joe restrained himself from snatching the putter from this obtuse septuagenarian and beating out his brains, if you could call them that. He even waited until the other had completed his stoke—another miss.

‘He’s not sitting there now.’

‘Of course, he’s not. How could he be when he’s gone for a walk?’

‘Walk? Where?’

‘Where what?’

‘Which way was he heading and when did he leave?’

‘Started out along the Walsingford road twenty minutes ago,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, and snorted irritably as his companion left him like a bullet from a gun. He disliked all young men, but he hated jumpy ones.”

There are several other eccentric characters—the ‘kickworthy’ fortune hunter Adrian Peake, the faux Czech Princess Dwornitzcheck, a shuffling butler named Pollen, and the waffle-requesting Mr Chinnery, to whom Sir Buckstone owes a large sum of money—and several of them seem to be chasing each other about.

Slight spoiler alert: there is a dust-up in which Joe Vanringham is set upon by a group of large, menacing, factory workers. Turns out, it’s a biscuit factory (that’s what the Brits call cookies), and suddenly the cookie makers seem much more comedy than tragedy. They all end up slinging pints, not fists, at the local pub. It is Wodehouse after all.

I don’t want to downplay this masterpiece as complete gush. Wodehouse was markedly cerebral, and he was alone, unequaled, in his ability to write smart, and most hilarious, novels. Nary a page goes by without a reference to classical Greek or Roman mythology, Classical Opera, Shakespeare, or British history. Joe Vanringham, before he secures a room at Walsingford Hall, feels himself “a peri at the gate of Paradise.”  But that is for another blog post. Always, Wodehouse does it so seamlessly, that a reader could completely miss these citations and just enjoy the comedic flow.

The plot is delightfully fluffy and bubbles along in a series of inane incidents that highlight the joys of summertime in the English countryside. Yes, I laughed and smiled on every page—a perfect sunny, summer read.

P.G. Wodehouse via Wikipedia

The Paris Review Interview of P.G. Wodehouse

The P.G. Wodehouse Society

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