Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio is a Maori word and means” Reflections on the water".

The author's name always appears on a list of grand dames of mystery. Even though Marsh was born and lived most of her life in New Zealand all of her books were written about England save for four. I looked up her books at our library and found one of the four.

What convinced me find the one copy in our library consortium was an article I read by a New Zealand writer who maintains a blog devoted to "Kiwi" crime writers. He had recently written a piece about Marsh. He wrote about the dated aspects of her detective novels, but also wrote about the gift she had for language and novel twists.

My copy of Colour Scheme was a 1943 copy.

On the back cover: “This book like all books, is a symbol of the liberty and the freedom for which we fight. You, as a reader of books, can do your share in the desperate battle to protect those liberties— Buy Wars Bonds
( Bonds or stamps may be procured at most book stores, all banks, many other places of business. To buy them is to become a true soldier of democracy.).

It was a perfect reminder of the time the story was written and added an authenticity to the book.

A cast of quirky characters—some British, some New Zealanders, and a few Maori appear in the story. Marsh's description of attitudes toward the indigenous people clearly shows the prejudice held by many.

All, save the Maori who live in a village nearby, are ensconced in a second-class establishment touting its thermal and mud bath cures. There’s a death on the property, which is a homicide, love infatuations, a self-absorbed actor and his two attendants, and an enemy agent.

A detective from England who is parading as a client in need of the mud baths to cure his lumbago skillfully unravels the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed the leisurely pace, the humor and the character's foibles. I could easily see them portrayed on Masterpiece Theatre.

The other day I found one of her reissued books and purchased it for a rainy day when I want a cup of tea and a cozy mystery.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Astrid & Veronika

  By Linda Olsson

I know that most of the reviews for this book were positive; however, I found myself bored. It's a simple story of a friendship between a young writer and an elderly woman. Veronika who had been living in New Zealand returns to Sweden and takes up residence in a small village where she hopes to complete her novel. Astrid lives across the way. 

Astrid is known as the witch, but we don't know why. Perhaps because she's reclusive. 

In time the two women develop a friendship which includes walks, meals, and the sharing of their past. The story progresses as they each remove layers of the past and reveal tragedies that haunt their lives.

There are certainly a number of tender moments as they reveal themselves to each other. Often what is missing is their motivation for some of their past actions. Their voices are clearer than the narrator's voice which often feels intrusive.

Too much of the story felt contrived. Despite the personal stories I never felt close to the characters. 

For me the strongest parts of the story were the descriptions of the Swedish landscape the two encountered in their walks.

Despite my annoyance with not knowing more about the why behind some of their past actions, I did enjoy their deepening friendship. The ending was flat and predictable.  
Linda Olsson did make me want to walk in the Swedish countryside.

Scandinavian Book Challenge

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Out Stealing Horses

By Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses , a seemingly simple story gains momentum as the layers of the past are revealed or remembered by Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who had recently lost his wife. Trond seeks to allay his feeling of loneliness by moving from Oslo to a rural community where he can enjoy solitude with his dog. His days will be filled with the details inherent in fixing up a cabin in need of repairs.

Solitude isn’t always quiet and the past enters into both his nighttime and daytime hours. His nearest neighbor Lars is someone he knew when as a fifteen year old he had spent the summer with his father. That summer, 1948, would leave indelible marks.

Lars is a surviving twin. The summer of 1948 he was ten and one day he accidentally shot his brother when he picked up a loaded rifle his older brother Jon had left leaning against a door. Jon had been out hunting and forgot to remove the cartridges from his rifle. Trond and Jon had been friends. After the accident Jon leaves home and eventually goes out to sea.

This mirroring of two appears a number of times in the book. Trond’s mother has twin brothers; one returns home from the war and one was shot by the Gestapo. The title of the story also has two references. Jon and Trond refer to the time they entered a neighbor’s pasture and rode two of his horses as a day to go Out Stealing Horses. That phrase was also the password in the Norwegian resistance.

Jon and Trond’s fathers both vie for Jon’s mother. And there’s the life that Trond knows nothing about during the war years when Trond’s father is involved with the resistance and disappears for long periods of time.

In 1948 Trond spends the summer with his father — a summer both magical and staggering emotionally. He sees his father and Jon’s mother kissing. A friend of his father tells him about his father’s involvement in the resistance as well as the involvement of Jon’s mother with the resistance movement.

The story of the occupation and the resistance is unfurled slowly, but carefully and with a foreboding of what will be ahead.

At the end of the summer Trond’s father, a father who he dearly loved takes him to the train station and tells him that he will follow. It’s an emotional scene and one that the fifteen year old will bear with him for his entire life. Late autumn his father writes to his mother telling her that he will not be returning home. He has left money in a Swedish bank for his family. This is the money earned from felling timber that summer and sending it downstream into Sweden.

Trond and his mother leave for Sweden to claim the money, which ends up being a paltry sum. Obviously some of the timber never made it downstream. Her life changes and she loses whatever lightness she possessed.

Lars tells Trond that he eventually inherited the farm when he was twenty-four, but lost it when his brother Jon returned from his sea journeys and as the oldest son claimed the land. At that point Lars left home and had not seen either his mother or Jon since that day. Again we have a leaving.

Trond does not ask Lars if his father had lived with his mother. He spares Lars a response.

The cruelty of the Nazis is also seen in Jon’s cruelty when as a young man he destroys a bird’s nest and the eggs in the nest. It’s almost a fore shadow of what is to come.

Seamlessly woven into the story are the activities of the resistance throughout the war years. Each incident is a precursor of the next incident.

At the end of the book Trond’s daughter Ellen tracks him down and pays him an unexpected visit. It is this visit that allows change to enter his life.

I found the book haunting and powerful. It took me to places within the story and to places in my own past.

Scandinavian Book Challenge

Friday, August 13, 2010

Wife of the Gods

By Kwei Quartey

Kwei Quartey grew up in Ghana and left when he was seventeen. He now lives in California; however, the story is set in Ghana.

This is the first book in what promises to be an interesting mystery series. Quartey's detective, Inspector Darko Dawson is a man with a number of failings--he enjoys smoking marijuana and has a intense temper that often results in his being too physical. But he's also a man who loves his family and has a penchant for seeing beyond the obvious.

Because he speaks the native dialect he is sent  to the small town of Ketanu where he is to investigate the death of a medical student. This is not an unfamiliar place for Darko. As a young boy he visited his aunt and uncle in Ketanu. And over twenty years ago his mother had gone to visit his aunt and uncle and disappeared on her way home.

The local police chief perceives the city detective as an intrusive presence. He arrests someone Darko believes is innocent. 

There are local customs and beliefs that attribute events and sicknesses to spirits. One such custom is the offering of young girls to fetish priests as an atonement for family sins. They are the Wives of the Gods. Dawson's revulsion with this practice sets up a confrontation with the fetish priest.

The authenticity of the setting, and the lilting musicality of the writing simply add to the enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Global Reading Challenge

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
— Jean Rhys

The Expert Challenge— Completed

Please click the book title to read my book review.

I read fourteen books. Twelve different countries are represented and two books are set in Antarctica. It's an eclectic list—rather like my reading habits.



1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
By Stieglitz Larsson

The Club Dumas
By Arturo Perez-Reverte


1. Cloudstreet
by Tim Winton

2.Where We Once Belonged
by Sia Figuel


1. Prairies of Fever
By Ibrahim Nasrallah
(story takes place in Saudia Arabia) Nasrallah lives in Jordan

2.The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist
by Emile Habiby
Israel (Palestine)
Habiby was an Arab-Israeli


1. The Sand Child
by Tahar Ben Jelloun

2.The Life and Times of Michael K
by J. M Coetzee
South Africa


1. The Big Bang Symphony
Lucy Bledsoe

2 The Brief History of the Dead
By Kevin Brockmeier

North America

1. The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
United States

2. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
By Mordecai Richter

South America

1.Alone in the Crowd
By Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

2. Dr. Brodies Report
Jorge Luis Borges

The Brief History of the Dead

By Kevin Brockmeier

From the very first line I was hooked into the story, a story that takes place in the city of the dead and in Antarctica.

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand.

The city is the place people go after they have died. They remain there as long as someone who is living keeps their memory alive. When that person dies they cross over into the next phase, perhaps heaven.

When in the city you remain the same age you were when you died. The city looks like any other city with restaurants, commercial buildings, transportation, myriad small businesses, recreation areas and places of religious observance. Families may be reunited and friends meet old friends who have died years before.

The second story takes place in Antarctica. Laura Byrd and two other Coca-Cola employees are stranded there without knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world.

The events we see happening today—warming of the planet —has resulted in the melting of the polar ice caps. Coca-Cola wants to use the water from the Antarctica for its soft drink. Because the nations of the world are involved in biological terrorism there's a logical fear of the water supply being polluted.

When Laura and the two other employees are unable to communicate with their corporate headquarters after their "antenna splintered free of the satellite dish--" and when no one tries to communicate with them, the two men head out to the Ross shelf where there's an expedition studying the migratory habits of penguins. When they don't return after three weeks, Laura fits out a sledge and heads out to the Ross Shelf expedition.

In the rest of the world a lethal virus is released and people all over the globe are dying.

Neither of these two "realms" knows anything about the other realm. Laura does not initially know of all the deaths.

As more and more people die most of the city's population disappears. Laura Byrd's parents are in the city and they are looking for Laura. In time Laura is the only living person left on earth. Only those people Laura remembers remain in the city. Not only does the population diminish but soon the boundaries of the city shrink.

The remaining people all have interesting ties to Laura, whether it was a third grade friend, a teacher at the university with whom she had a summer romance, the blind man, the "preacher" carrying signs with words from the Bible. What is especially intriguing is how these people respond so differently to their new environment.

Laura upon reaching the expedition site and finding a journal pieces together the story of what has happened in the world. She understands that the mounds outside the hut are burial grounds for the expedition crew.

One of the themes in this novel concerns memory and the role it plays in our lives and in the retelling of our stories. In many respects this is a “cautionary” story. It is also a tale of connections.

The ending of the story recreates the beginning when we read of the crossing and how it is experienced.

A quote in the preface creates a doorway to The Brief History of the Dead the quote tells of African societies that believe that humans pass from being alive to living-dead to dead. The living-dead remain so and pass on to the dead when the "last person to know an ancestor dies."

I'll reread this book.