Saturday, February 2, 2008

January's Books

I am a "remote" member of a Mystery Book Group. Each month they pick three books and the members can choose to read one, two or all three of the books. I think this is a GREAT idea for a book club - people don't end up stuck reading a book they HATE simply because it was the only book for that month. In January I read all three of the books. The physical members of the group with meet on Tuesday to discuss their thoughts on the books. I e-mail mine in, but here they are for you to read:

The first book I read was City of the Absent by Robert Walker. It takes place in Chicago immediately following the World's Fair at the turn of the century. Alastair Ransom is a police detective who starts out investigating the murder of the city's mayor and ends up on the trail of someone who's killing people for medical schools - there's a shortage on cadavers.

Alastair's love interest is Jane, who is a surgeon. But, given the time period, women aren't accepted as surgeons, so she disguises herself as a man to gain the acceptance of the community. A few people know her true identity. While today's society is not to this extreme, woman still struggle to compete in the male-dominated societies making the novel's themes universal.

Jane and Alastair are very dynamic characters. They definitely had their faults, which made them human and relatable. And they also tended to hide behind both literal and figurative masks. They both wanted to do go in a very corrupt time and place, but Walker doesn't make it easy for them to do go - there are no red "S"s on their chests. The villain turns out to be twin brothers. But these twin brothers aren't much alike, instead they seem to be one person with each brother getting some of the characteristics of the whole: one has a strong appearance, while the other has physical strength; one has intelligence, the other compassion. But Ransom's battle is not simply with this pair of brothers, but he must also battle corruption in politics and the police force, another universal theme.

Walker's work wonderfully echoed Dickens: the character development, the anticipation, the way things tie together.

I would say my one "issue" with this novel was the inclusion of the mayor's murder. It really didn't seem to have an significance in the whole of the plot, so I didn't see the point in including it.
**a small note here: an argument I've heard against this novel is that the plausibility of Jane living a double life as a man is non-existant. I don't find this to be the case for myself because throughout history, literature, mythology we've revered people who have "disguised" themselves. Even in our modern-day screen-writing we have people disguising themselves as the opposite gender: Tootsie, Shakespeare in Love...these are highly acclaimed movies for the points they are making with their disguised characters. So, I do not personally find this to be a flaw at all in this novel.
Overall I loved this novel and look forward to Walker's next installement of Ransom's escapades.

The next novel I read for January was The Water Clock by Jim Kelly. In this novel Philip Dryden is a journalist who was in a car accident that left him fine but his wife in a coma. This happens before the novel starts. When a homocide occurs that could have connections to his own accident, Philip begins to investigate.

I found these characters harder to connect with. Philip visits his wife every day in the hospital, but it seems to be more out of obligation than love. And his "getting the story" is more important to him than actually finding out the truth. He steps on anyone and everyone he needs to to "get the story." Meanwhile, his partner in crime, Andrew Stubbs, a police detective, has very similar qualities. His job is in danger because of an error in judgement, and he's using Philip to try to save his career. The irony is, he doesn't seem all that interested in his career.

I didn't think Philip's personal accident should have been included in the plot. It distracted from the storyline more than it helped it or contributed to it.

The major redeeming character in this novel, for me was Humph. He was the taxi driver who would cart Philip around all day. Humph was unique and humorous; this was reflected simply in the description of the taxi. Humph was also dedicated to Philip - Philip couldn't believe at the hospital that Humph had actually gotten out of his car, yet it was to come and warn Philip. Humph would make a fun character to center a plot around.

This book is also part of a series, but I will not be pursuing any of the other books in this one.

The final book for January was Home Fires by Margaret Maron. This book revolved around a North Carolina judge. I listened to this one on audio book. The reader was decent, but I think she sounded a bit too old for the character of Deborah, and her southern dialect left a bit to be desired. Otherwise, it was a decent reading.

I liked this book, but it seemed more of a plain drama than an actual mystery. There is a mystery plot, but it really takes a backseat to the character development in this novel. It also takes a backseat to the religious and racial issues that are addressed. The major racial theme that seemed to come out here was: there are many people out there, both black and white, trying to make a difference in racial tensions; but oftentimes, it is these same people who contribute to the problem.

Maron does an awesome job of character development. I had to chuckle at Deborah's name: Judge Knott. In a book full of religious tones and references, I couldn't help but think "judge not lest ye be judged." Every chapter begins with a sign from one of the churches in the town. I personally get a kick out of reading church signs and seeing their use of the English language to share "messages", so this element of the book was fun. In addition Maron threads Biblical references all through the plot.

Another element of Deborah's character that was fun was the existance of the "Pragmatist" and the "Preacher" sitting on her shoulders - one on one side, one on the other, each giving her opposing viewpoints on all the situations she encounters. The internal conflict comes to life.
This was a fun book. I may check into more Judge Knott installments.

**I apologize for the spacing. I'm trying to get the blank spaces in between paragraphs, but Blogger seems to be deleting them for some reason today. Hope it isn't too difficult to read.


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