Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cuba to Italy to the UK

A couple of satisfying reads, one false start, and some current ambivalence mark my recent reading.

I ended my early review of Philip Kerr's If the Dead Rise Not with Bernie Gunther's marvelous comment about nude trombone players.  You could stop right there and have enjoyed it!  But the book continued to be as fine a read as the early chapters promised, and Kerr's description of Batista's near-the-end Cuba is lush and menacing, as the real thing must have been.  The ending was a not-quite-good surprise, in thatI kind of hate those mysteries where the hero was in the know all the time but didn't reveal it to the reader.  But Bernie is a great creation, a true survivor, and I look forward to getting the next one, which I hear starts, surprise, in Cuba!

While I enjoyed Charles Lenox's A Brilliant Blue Death as much for its anglophilia as for anything else, I just found myself restless with the second one, The September Society.  My mood of the moment demanded something grittier than Victorian-era Oxford, steeped in tradition - which I love - like nowhere else.  I think this will be an enjoyable read, but at the time it felt like a too-warm shawl and I cast it aside in favor of . . .

Michael Dibdin's Ratking.  Now, I'd toyed with reading these Aurelio Zen novels for a while, but since I'd seem some adaptations on PBS a year or two ago, I worried that a) the TV version would influence my mind's eye in terms of how I'd "see" the story and its characters, and b) that they wouldn't be interesting because I knew how they ended.  But when I thought about it, I realized that I had NO RECOLLECTION WHATSOEVER of how they ended, so b) was removed as an issue.  And I'm pleased to report that the books are darker and a little nastier than the TV versions, so even if I did recall how they ended (and I'm not sure it was the same anyway), they did not influence my imagination really at all, and that dispatched a).  Add to this the fact that Ratking is a satisfyingly complex story about a kidnapped industrial magnate and his creepy family, well set in the Italian context of constant kidnappings and a lot of good coffee, and you've got yourself a winner.  Dibdin isn't nearly as into food, so far at least, as, say, Camilleri, but I'll take this meal:

"Lunch with Bartocci had indeed proved very much like dinner with the Milettis, except that the food was even better:  macaroni in a sauce made wiht cream and spicy sausage meat, chunks of liver wrapped in a delicte net of membrane and charred over embers, thin dark-green stalks of wild asparagus, strawberries soaked in lemon juice."  (Ratking, 1997 ed., pp. 71-72) 

I look forward to reading more of Dibdin's work, and seeing if any future meals live up to this one.

And now for the ambivalence.  I've written before about how much I enjoy Ann Cleeves' Shetland Islands-based mysteries, as much for the setting as for anything else.  And Blue Lightning did not disappoint on that front.  This one takes place on detective Jimmy Perez' home island of Fair Isle, yes, of sweater fame.  And apparently birding - the plot involves a murder at a birding research center, where birders from all over the world come to look at the many species that move through the Shetland Islands.  Once again, the light, the sea, the barren land, the weather, all add up to make for a compelling setting.  And, this plot involved a cook at the birding station, so there are gallons of tea and an awful lot of fresh-baked scones, not to mention a few drams of whiskey which never hurts.  I challenge you to read this, and to NOT want to put on a sweater and get baking.  But I didn't find many of the characters particularly compelling, and Jimmy and Fran's relationship . . . is it fraught or not?  I'm kind of tired of sorting that out, now four books in.  Finally, the resolution is one of those out-of-the-blue ones that just seems sort of invented to end the book.  Well, the series ends here, and I still think they are worth reading for the islands and the baking.  But stop by to borrow them, no need to rush out and buy.

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