Two Mysteries

I hadn’t read a mystery in a long while, thought it used to be one of my favorite genres. But in the past two months, I read two. Although they were written in different countries (Japan and England) about 25 years apart, they are both in the “classic” murder mystery style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. The reader is given lots of clues to the details of how the murders were killed, and we follow an amateur sleuth in both books to discover the solution.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz pays homage to the classic English village murder mystery. Fictional editor Susan Ryeland reads the latest manuscript by her top-selling mystery author Alan Conway, but is surprised to find that the last chapter is missing. Worse yet, Alan Conway himself is found murdered. His is the second death, as his housekeeper had been found dead under suspicious circumstances but in a “locked room” situation.  As Susan tries to find the last chapter of Conway’s novel, she gets drawn deeper into the mystery of who killed Conway and the housekeeper and the uncanny parallels between the real murders and Conway’s fictional ones. Is it possible for a novel to feel modern and old-fashioned at the same time? Horowitz manages to pull it off.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Shoji Shimada was written way-back-when in 1981. It’s a kind of locked room mystery where the deceased has penned a plan to murder several women, cut them up, and reassemble them into a gruesome sculpture, all based on astrology. The women are murdered and their corpses, all missing body parts, and found all over Japan, but their murders take place after the author of the plan has been found dead. So who murdered him–and them? And where is the sculptural assemblage of their missing parts? The mystery is 40 years old, when the narrator and his friend, an amateur sleuth and astrologer, try to figure it out once and for all. The story is a giant puzzle, and at one point, the author interjects himself and tells the reader that they have all the clues to solve the mystery and the murders. Despite this announcement, I had absolutely no clue who did it, how, or why (I am rotten at solving a murder mystery before the big reveal). But I read happily on and enjoyed the clever solution.

After such a long time not having read any mysteries, it was serendipitous that I read two with such similarities. Both had murdered authors of manuscripts that described the real murders, and both had locked room murders. Perhaps Horowitz read Shimada and that gave him some ideas for his story?  I certainly got my murder mystery itch well scratched for a while.


The Rich Stink of the North Water

the-north-waterIf you enjoy a lively adventure tale and have a strong stomach, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more rollicking read than Ian McGuire’s The North Water. What a humdinger!

Set in the late 19th century when the world’s population of whales is in decline, a whaling ship is outfitted and sent into far northern waters in search of a few of the beasts to fill their hold with oil. It’s an odd journey — late in the season for finding whales so far north — and yet the ship pushes farther and farther northward at grave (or is it planned?) risk of being locked in the ice for the winter.  Continue reading

Quick Reviews of Recent Reads

Big MagicBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I have such a love-hate for Elizabeth Gilbert. On one hand, she’s so sunny, lucid, and wise. On the other, she’s blithe and oblivious. Big Magic, her treatise on creativity and living the creative life, is all those things. I find some of her ideas incredibly inspiring, such as not making your creativity pay for itself–it’s okay to work a “real” job so you don’t put that kind of pressure on being creative. Or, inspiration will find another person to make it manifest if you don’t grab it when it arises (kooky, but I like it). Continue reading

It’s all about the punctuation: Burial Rites


Burial Rites by Hannah Kent was one of last year’s darlings in the book blogosphere. Based on real events that occurred in early nineteenth-century Iceland, the story thrusts us into the head of a condemned murderess while she lives out her final days. Agnes, a destitute servant, has been found guilty along with two others in the murder of an eccentric local man — a healer, womanizer, and partial outcast — who is both respected and hated in his rural community. The book opens as Agnes is taken from the wretched conditions of her holding cell to a farm where she will help out the owners until her execution is arranged. Continue reading

The Greatest Book I Didn’t Understand: The Luminaries

The LuminariesI wasn’t going to read The Luminaries. After its spike in popularity following the Booker Prize, I saw a dozen or so reviews of it and was intimidated by references to it being “intricately plotted” or offering “dazzling complexity.” One blogger suggested to not worry about what was going on until after page 400, then it would start making sense. Another took copious notes to keep track of the shifts in perspective, plot, clues and characters. The setting of the New Zealand gold rush did not particularly interest me, and descriptions of the astrological ordering of the book sounded unnecessarily arcane. At a humdinging 800+ pages, I swore not going to read it for popularity’s sake. No, no thank you.

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Pompeii“They left the aquaduct two hours before dawn, climbing by moonlight into the hills overlooking the port–six men in single file, the engineer leading.” — Pompeii, Robert Harris

I have been reading to my son ever since he was born. Even now at 13, he seems to welcome the chance to fiddle with Legos and cuddle the cat while listening intently as I spin off a chapter or two each evening. One of our first “chapter” novel reads was Dragon Rider by Urusla LeGuin–which remains, he tells me, one of his favorite books though I’ve never seen him crack the cover on his own. Left to his own devices, he reads gobs of  sci-fi and all distopian teen fiction.

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