Books Recently Read: A Summer of Fiction

Charles Cottle —

Over the summer I read a number of popular books from various best seller lists. Here are my short reviews of ten of those. As you can see, I especially like a good mystery or detective crime novel. If you have read some that are not on this list, I would appreciate hearing from you about others that you think are good and those that are not. Also, I encourage your assessment of the ones below, even though it might disagree with mine.

imageUnder the Harrow by Flynn Berry

This is the story of Nora who returns home from London to visit her sister. On arrival she finds her sister murdered. Told from Nora’s point of view, the narrative relates the ensuing police investigation into the murder as well as Nora’s own inquiry into her sister’s life. What she finds is a person she didn’t know. As this novel is told from Nora’s perspective, it is not a police procedural. Instead, it is better classified as a “psychological thriller.” The reader learns, as the story progresses, that Nora is an unreliable narrator. As Nora’s grip on reality appears to loosen, the reader begins to suspect that Nora, herself, might be the murderer. It becomes clear that the police have the same suspicion. I recommend this book with the proviso that Nora’s persistent voice may strike some as tedious.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Following up on her recent hit, Girl on the Train, Hawkins delivers another engaging piece of “mystery” fiction. I enclose “mystery” in quotes because for most of the book the reader suspects, but cannot be sure, that a crime has been committed. Thus, this is definitely not the traditional whodunnit, nor is it an adventure tale in the normal sense of the term. Instead, the narrative proceeds with a series of soliloquies by the characters in the story, each reflecting on the history of drownings that have occurred in a deep pool at a bend in the local river. Through the device of the soliloquy, the reader learns about the configuration of facts and personalities involved in, and affected by, the drownings. Hawkins gradually builds the story while keeping the reader guessing by cleverly inserting instances of misdirection in the narrative. The overall effect is positive.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

The vast majority of murder mysteries focus on the question, “Who committed the crime.” Higashino’s Malice is different. In this novel the victim is murdered at the beginning of the story, and in short order the killer is identified. It becomes clear, however, that without a convincing motive for the murder, the prosecutor cannot get a conviction. Thus, the question for the detective of the novel is not, “Who committed the crime,” but rather, “What could possibly be the motive?” It is the solution to this question that Higashino’s talent for ingenious plot lines creates another engaging mystery. Readers are warned not to form hasty judgements as they progress through the story. On more than one occasion I thought I understood wherein lay the solution to the question at hand, only to discover later that I didn’t understand at all. What a delight.

imageThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Novels about haunted houses are not generally to my taste, but I thought I would take a chance on this one because some regard it as the best haunted house tale of all time. Perhaps it is because of my lack of interest in the genre, but I wish I had skipped this story. The novel is told from the point of view of one of four people who meet at an old Victorian mansion, reputed to be haunted. Three of the characters are chosen by the fourth, a somewhat suspect Ph.D. in anthropology who has an interest in the paranormal. (Note the dig at academe, especially anthropology.) The three are chosen for their personal histories or relation to the house. One is the heir to the house. Another is chosen because of her history of telepathy. The main character is chosen because of her history with poltergeist. It is worthwhile noting that neither telepathy nor poltergeist have any clear relation to the story. The story ends when the author, apparently tired of writing, decided to send all the characters home.

I am aware that many readers of this tale see a complex psychological thriller about an unreliable witness where I see banality. I agree that such an interpretation makes the book more interesting, but I think the effort is poorly executed nonetheless.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

This is a story about the kidnapping of a six month old infant, and it is a page turner. The characters are thinly sketched and the scene descriptions are meager. Yet the story is compelling. At the beginning a child is kidnapped, but there are no clues and no forensic evidence as to how it was accomplished. The narrative is carried along by the conversations of the anguished parents and grandparents. The police procedural aspect of the story is secondary to the plot as the parents are afraid to involve the police for fear of bringing harm to the kidnapped child. About halfway through the book, the facts of the kidnapping are revealed. But gradually the backstory of the novel moves front and center to reveal a surprising conclusion. The Couple Next Door is a quick and entertaining read.

The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald

Although John D. MacDonald is one of the icons of “hard-boiled” detective novels, this was my first experience reading one of his books. If the rest of MacDonald’s books are similar to this one, I’m not encouraged to continue reading them. This is the first book in MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. McGee is a self-indulgent beach bum whose preachy disdain for middle-class life styles gets tiresome rather quickly. He makes his living as a kind of bounty hunter who will pursue his client’s loss as long as he gets half when it is recovered. Perhaps because the book was first published in 1964, MacDonald’s views on masculinity and femininity seem more like caricatures than anything real. McGee, the main character is self-delusionally boorish when it comes to his views about women; what they are like, how they think, their motives, and so forth.

The story, itself, is fairly pedestrian. McGee pursues a serial rapist and con-man who has disappeared with an ill-gotten fortune. Because McGee is not really a detective, the villain is known from the beginning, and the police are not involved, the story is not a whodunit nor a police procedural. Rather, it is more of an adventure tale than anything else. The progress and resolution of the story is fairly predictable. There are chase scenes with boats, intelligent women doing dangerously stupid things, and fights. The denouement is bitter-sweet and Travis McGee sails off into the sunset.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

In this novel Ruth Ozeki delivers another memorable and engaging work. This is the story of the “interaction” between a young Japanese girl and a Japanese-American novelist. I put “interaction” in quotes only because the interaction is across time and distance, thus making the physical interaction impossible. Yet as the story progresses, the interaction takes on a quality of reality that goes beyond the interaction a reader might have with ideas, or the sympathetic interactions one ordinarily has with the characters and events in works of fiction. Like all good novels, this story moves at several levels. There is, of course, the surface narrative of events. But questions of time and existence are also treated through the filters of Zen Buddhism and theories of quantum reality. Although I know only a little more about quantum theories of multiple worlds, I know even less about Buddhism. And thus, I don’t feel qualified to attempt an analysis of those aspects of Ozeki’s novel. Let me say only that the “time being” is another expression for “now.” Another meaning, however, is a “being in time.” Thus, we are all “time beings.” It seems to me that as the novel progresses, the meaning of “time being” in one sense morphs into the other, hence the ambiguity of the title, A Tale for the Time Being.

Missing, Presumed: A Novel by Susie Steiner

This novel is nominally a police procedural that focuses on the disappearance of a young Ph.D. student. The young woman vanishes, seemingly without a trace. Understandably, much of the story concerns whether or not a crime has been committed. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns quite a bit about the student who has vanished, but we don’t learn much about why until near the end of the tale.

For me, the more interesting part of the story concerns the character development of the police investigators and the distraught parents. Steiner is quite talented at the describing the minutiae of daily life that provide substance to the understanding of the various characters of the story. Consequently, the backstory of the primary investigator, Manon Bradshaw, is more interesting than the surface narrative involving the disappearance that carries the main plot. The result is an engaging story whose strength lies, not in the mystery element of the story, but rather in the multi-layered environment in which it takes place.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

This is the second in a series of novels featuring DS Manon Bradshaw. In the previous novel, Missing, Presumed (reviewed above), Bradshaw adopts Fly Dent, a disadvantaged young boy from a rough section of London. The present story picks up a bit after the first. Like the first story, this one is also a police procedural, but in this case the narrative takes the unusual direction of placing the characters under investigation within Manon Bradshaw’s own family. Thus, she is officially relegated to the position of observer as she witnesses how the police, her colleagues, proceed in her own case. What she observes is more uncomfortable than she would like to admit.

Once again, Steiner is masterful when it comes to character development. She engages the reader with insights about life, that may or may not be her own. One of these insights is found in the story’s conclusion itself. Although the primary crisis in Manon Bradshaw’s life is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, the book closes with major issues in her life unresolved.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

The plot of this tale is intriguing. A group of people are placed in a closed environment. A murder is committed, but all the characters are accounted for. How can this be? I know this plot line has been done many times before, most notably perhaps by Agatha Christie in her classic, And Then There Were None, and most recently by Paula Hawkins in her popular novel, The Girl on the Train. In this case the protagonist, Lo Blacklock, a young journalist for a travel magazine gets an assignment on a luxury yacht for a week. As luck would have it, she inadvertently witnesses a murder, or so she believes. Yet, it appears that all the guests on the trip are accounted for. The rest of the story falls into the category of “intelligent women doing stupid things,” a familiar motif of poorly written crime fiction or the category of simple incredulity. I’m not sure which. In any case, the reader learns from the outset that our heroine has a bad case of claustrophobia that makes it appearance over and over throughout the narrative. The author might have used some of the space devoted to claustrophobia to something else – maybe character development. As it turns out, the execution of an engaging plot is not as well done as I would have liked.

5 thoughts on “Books Recently Read: A Summer of Fiction

  1. The only one I have read of these is “Tale for the Time Being,” and I agree with what you say. I find it a hauntingly memorable book in many ways. In my Community Ed lit classes here in the North Woods, and now in the book club I belong to, as well as in my “Books Read” lists we rate the books on a scale of 1-10, ten being high. I will try to find Ozeki and see what number I gave it when it was fresh in my mind!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, again–I looked back at my 2013 list, when “Tale for the Time Being” came out, and I gave it an 8. One mystery/spy novel I rated a 9 that year, Matthews’ “Red Sparrow.” I had another 9–Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Accursed.” And three 10s: Emma Donoghoe, “Room”; Niekerk’s “Agaat”; and Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children.” These lists sure do help me remember!

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  3. On your previous endorsement of Keigo Higashino’s “The Devotion of Suspect X,” I picked it up — & couldn’t put it down til finishing. My reading choices are not usually fiction, but your reviews here sure sell well-crafted fiction as a pleasant seasonal pastime. (Life is a seasonal pastime, come to think of it!) May have to incorporate more over the winter months.

    Not to slight others of your reviews here, but Higashino’s “Malice” strikes close to home for some central Wisconsin folks. About a decade ago (in the same small town Robert Bloch wrote “Psycho”) a recently graduated high school valedictorian — well-adjusted & brilliant by most accounts — with a promising future open to imminent realization brutally murdered a homeless man in an out of the way location. Senseless. No apparrent motive. Tragic in all rational perspectives. Bordering on inconceivable, yet it happened. Though we, at a distance, lack accessible information from “police procedures,” what made the papers as motive was shocking. Maybe some of you readers recall?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Bob, for the comment. I think it will be hard to top Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X for ingenuous plot development. I, too, was captivated. In addition to Malice I have read two others by Higashino, Salvation of a Saint and A Midsummer’s Equation. I recommend them both.


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