“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Jane EyreWhen my book group was assigned to read a modern-day take-off on Jane Eyre, I thought that perhaps I should spend some time with the original source material first. Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel is one of the many works of classic literature that I have never read—I’ve never even seen any of the movie adaptations. Because the basic outline of the plot is a pretty well-established part of pop culture, I did know more or less what happened to Jane, and that the famous line “Reader, I married him” figured in somewhere.

The edition of Jane Eyre that I borrowed from my local library is around 550 pages long, and at first, it was kind of tough going, since the writing is definitely not like what one encounters in today’s novels. (Brontë was a big fan of semicolons; almost every sentence in the book employs several of them; there are also some archaic words, but luckily, my edition had footnotes; eventually, I just got used to her style.)

Before long, though, I was really caught up in the book, which is incredibly plot-heavy. Brontë packs a ton of drama, romance and tragedy into Jane Eyre‘s pages. I’m going to assume most people reading this have already read the 170-year-old book or at least know what happens in it, so I’m not going to be as concerned about potential spoilers as I usually am.

One thing that struck me about Jane Eyre is that the brooding Mr. Rochester (who is 20 years Jane’s senior) is really not a very admirable hero. He plays a lot of tricks on Jane, from disguising himself as a “gipsy” fortune-teller in order to trick her into speaking openly about her feelings, to telling her that he’s going to marry the wealthy, beautiful Miss Ingram just to see what her reaction is. He also throws in the fact that she will have to leave Thornfield, Rochester’s estate where she is employed as a governess for his ward Adèle, and go to work for a family in Ireland. Jane’s reaction is to sob “convulsively,” at which point Mr. Rochester says, Psych! I’m actually in love with you. Let’s get married ASAP! Instead of running in the opposite direction, Jane is overcome with joy, thinking “only of the bliss given me to drink in so abundant a flow.”

However, it turns out Mr. Rochester is already married, and his “crazy” wife lives right above Jane’s room! But that’s a big secret (any noise coming from upstairs is blamed on the “seamstress,” Grace Poole, who is actually Bertha’s caretaker). Jane only finds out about her groom’s bigamy when they’re literally standing at the altar. Pretty much every single aspect of Mr. Rochester’s relationship with Bertha is highly problematic, even by 1847 standards, apparently, since mental illness was already being dealt with in more humane ways in the U.K. Even back then, Bertha’s windowless room and lack of company (except for the heavy-drinking Grace Poole) would have been considered unacceptable.

This beautifully-written piece from Harvard chaplain Vanessa Zoltan brings up yet another dicey issue: Bertha’s mixed-race heritage (she’s part-Creole). She calls Bertha “a real victim,” and measures her love of the novel against her discomfort with the harsh treatment of the “madwoman.” The passage she quotes, in which Rochester speculates how he would act toward Jane if she were mad (“Your mind is my treasure, and if it were broken, it would be my treasure still: if you raved, my arms should confine you, and not a strait waistcoat—your grasp, even in fury, would have a charm for me…”), does definitely indicate that there’s some big difference between the two women. Apparently a mentally-ill white orphan would be easier to love than one who is half-Creole and from a wealthy family. (Bertha’s plight has fascinated many other writers over the years, from Jean Rhys, who penned a “prequel” about Bertha called Wide Sargasso Sea, to feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, authors of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.)

Nevertheless, taken simply as a ripping tale, I found Jane Eyre to be very much worth my time. Jane is a strong heroine, and to her credit, Brontë goes out of her way to let us know that she’s not a beauty, meaning Mr. Rochester loves her for who she is: “To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts… to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break—at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent—I am ever tender and true.” When he’s making statements like that one, Mr. Rochester does, indeed, seem like an ideal romantic hero.

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“Gone to Dust” by Matt Goldman

Gone to Dust by Matt GoldmanI read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but you know who appears to read far more of them than I do? Lee Child. It seems like half the books I pick up these days have a blurb from the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher series prominently displayed on the cover. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman, for instance, boasts this Child quote: “A perfect blend of light touch and dark story—I want more of Nils Shapiro.”

I’ve been suspicious of blurbs ever since a certain best-selling writer once told me at a mystery conference that she doesn’t actually read most of the books she blesses with her public praise. She said it jokingly, but I suspect she may have been kidding on the square. I’ll say this for Child, though—his “light touch and dark story” comment actually sums up Gone to Dust pretty well. And it’s a fast read, so I’m going to guess he really did get through its 300 pages. (I will pause here to note that Child is a great guy who is truly supportive of his fellow crime-fiction authors; he is just so promiscuous with his blurbs that I find it kind of funny.)

The premise of Gone to Dust is pure genius: the killer empties dust-filled vacuum-cleaner bags all over the victim and throughout her house, thus making it virtually impossible for the crime scene unit to do their usual thing, picking up stray fibers with tweezers and the other stuff you see on “C.S.I.” Maggie Somerville lived and died in the tony Minneapolis suburb of Edina, which hardly ever has murders occurring within its city limits. The lack of usable physical evidence means this crime will be especially tricky to solve, so police detective Anders Ellegaard calls in his old chum, private eye Nils Shapiro. (He’s Jewish, but was named after the Scandinavian man who saved his dad’s life.)

Shapiro is divorced, but still hung up on his ex-wife, with whom he remains on friendly terms (and by “friendly,” I mean they still sleep together). He’s pushing 40, but like so many wisecracking P.I.s you meet in novels, women seem to find him irresistible. He begins interviewing Maggie’s friends and exes, and eventually learns that there’s a lot more to the case than meets the eye—and those revelations create conflict with the police department that hired him.

Goldman, a former TV writer who worked on “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and several other shows, is a Minnesota native, and I’m sure locals will appreciate the copious references to Twin Cities geography (“The north end of the office park is bordered by Highway 494 and the south end is bordered by Normandale Lake, the Hyland downhill-ski area,” goes one typical passage). I’ve only been there once, so I don’t know my Lake Street from my Lake Calhoun, but the author’s descriptions of the snow and frigid cold of a Minnesota winter impart a sense of place more than the GPS-style navigation.

A first novel, Gone to Dust contains perhaps a few too many private-eye tropes, but for the most part it’s a clever and well-paced whodunit.

“Murder in Matera” by Helene Stapinski

Murder in MateraOne of my favorite genres is the “Family Secret” book, in which an intrepid journalist investigates some scandal in his or her family’s past and uncovers shocking surprises. A couple of my favorites are Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret and After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey.

Now comes Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski, who grew up hearing stories about her notorious great-great-grandmother Vita, who immigrated to New Jersey in the late 19th century. Legend had it that Vita fled Italy with her sons after murdering somebody back in the Old Country, but no one seemed to know what actually happened. Stapinski decides to find out.

She’s concerned that crime may somehow be deeply encoded in the family genes, and how that may affect her own children; the author recounts the criminal backgrounds of many of her relatives, including cousin Mike the mob consigliere and Grandpa Beansie, who murdered a guy in a fight. “Most of the criminals came from the Vena side, the Italian side,” she writes. “The name Vena can be translated a number of ways… But Vena’s main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime.”

Her first trip to Matera, with her mom and two young children in tow, is less than successful due to the fact that it’s hard to conduct an in-depth investigation with kids around. So she waits 10 years and goes back alone, hiring a couple of researchers to help her out. Things have changed a bit—Francis Ford Coppola has opened a 500-euro-a-night hotel in Bernalda—but echoes of the past are everywhere, from the caves painted by monks in the Middle Ages to the two-foot-tall books of documents stored deep in local archives. With the help of her researchers, plus a policeman and lawyer, she eventually finds out what happened to cause Vita to make that long ocean voyage to America.

The one problem I have with his book, and it’s kind of a big one, is that Stapinski frequently departs from the nonfiction narrative to deliver chapters that flash back to Vita’s life in the 1800s. In the afterword, she explains that she used her own “Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how [Vita] would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life,” but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with so much conjecture. No photographs of Vita exist, but Stapinski describes “the curve of her neck and the way she tilted her head when she listened. She was smart and wise all at the same time… Liveliness and love of life was hard to find in a place as miserable as nineteenth-century Bernalda. And Vita had it. Vita had it in spades.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the book, almost as though Stapinski really wanted to write a novel about her ancestor based on true events, and came up with this somewhat awkward mash-up instead. She also takes some huge leaps of imagination in a couple of situations where there’s no solid evidence of what really happened.

Still, the one thing that comes through loud and clear is how incredibly difficult life was for her Italian forebears, who constantly faced death and deprivation. My own Swedish relatives came to the U.S. a couple decades after Vita, and life in Sweden was equally grueling for many of its own poor citizens. It’s never a bad thing to pay tribute to the people who made it possible for us to live comfortably in modern-day America, and to think about the immigrants who continue to come here today, often fleeing violence and famine, hoping to find a better life for their families and all the generations to come.

“Sleeping in the Ground” by Peter Robinson

Sleeping in the GroundPeter Robinson’s 24th Inspector Banks novel, Sleeping in the Ground, is steeped in melancholy, something that is perhaps partially explained by the dedication to author’s father, who died last year. As the book opens, Banks is attending the funeral of his first love, Emily Hargreaves. They had fallen out of touch after Emily broke up with him, but he still has fond memories of their time together, and her death is a reminder of his own mortality: “When your friends and lovers start dying, you begin to feel as if you have only narrowly escaped the reaper yourself, and that it’s only a matter of time. Which, of course, it is.”

Meanwhile, as Banks sits on the train listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, all hell is breaking loose back home: a sniper has fired at a wedding party at a local church, killing and injuring several of the guests and members of the party, including the bride. A terrorist attack seems unlikely considering the out-of-the-way location in Yorkshire. The bride was a successful fashion model; could she have attracted a stalker? Or perhaps the killer was just looking for “the most convenient and dramatic way he could find to express his sick needs,” in Banks’ words. The entire Eastvale team begins looking into the backgrounds of the dead and injured, and hunts for clues to the gunman’s identity.

Unlike most Banks novels, which feature a couple of different investigations, Sleeping in the Ground sticks to one, as we follow Banks and the usual suspects, including DI Annie Cabbot, on the killer’s trail. One beloved member of the force is missing, though: DS Winsome Jackman, who happened to be attending the wedding and was injured by a bullet.

One surprising member of the team is Jenny Fuller, a forensic psychologist brought in to help profile the killer. Dr. Fuller appeared in earlier Banks novels, back when he was still married (he has since divorced); there was a mutual attraction between them, but ultimately Banks resisted the temptation to stray. Jenny wound up moving to Australia, but is now back in Yorkshire.

I started reading this book on what would have been the birthday of a good friend who died earlier this year, so I was feeling as reflective as Banks and appreciated the dark and contemplative mood Robinson established. As usual, the Banks novels continue to rank high among my favorite crime-fiction series.

“Y is for Yesterday” by Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday“P” is for penultimate. The end is near for private investigator Kinsey Millhone, who has been entertaining readers for 35 years now. (Z is for Zero is scheduled to come out in 2019, 37 years after the publication of A is for Alibi; Kinsey herself will just be turning 40, since the books have all been set in the 1980s.)

So there are a lot of expectations for the final books in this series, which will tie up the long-running saga. The once-slim volumes that could be read in an afternoon or two now weigh in at around 500 pages, which might be comforting to fans who want to prolong their pleasure as long as possible.

One thing I’ve appreciated about Sue Grafton is that she never phones it in—unlike many series writers, her books have never been formulaic or lazily plotted. Y fits in well with the rest of the volumes she’s published in the past decade or so; it’s an enjoyable read, though perhaps not one of the all-time greats. Millhone’s sleuthing in Y is actually a little subpar. Cracking this particular case turns out to be more a matter of luck than investigative skill.

The “yesterday” of the title is 1979, 10 years before the “present day” of 1989. A group of high school kids have made a sex tape, featuring a couple boys having their way with Iris, a drunk, passed-out 14-year-old, while a couple others watched but did not participate. (Unlike “sex tapes” you hear about in the Internet age, this was, of course, a literal VHS tape.) A decade later, the tape continues to have repercussions. One person was killed, one of Iris’s rapists went to jail for the murder, and the others are still affected in various ways.

Kinsey is hired by the parents of Fritz McCabe, the boy who was locked up for killing his classmate Sloan, the ex-girlfriend of one of the participants in the filmed assault. Tried as a juvenile, Fritz served his time at California Youth Authority; upon his release, his wealthy parents received a copy of the tape in the mail, along with a demand for $25,000 “or this goes to the district attorney.” Since that could trigger new charges against Fritz of rape and sexual assault, his mother Lauren wants Kinsey to find out who is making the threat, without getting the police involved.

I read Y over the course of a week, and wished I had jotted down some notes on the characters and their relationships to one another. We get to know them in flashbacks to 1979 and in present day when Kinsey interviews them over the course of her investigation. It’s complicated, keeping straight which teens dated, how they’re related today (Iris, the girl in the tape, is now engaged to the dead girl’s stepbrother), etc. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Kinsey is being stalked by a madman who first turned up in X, and there are various dramas involving her friends and acquaintances, such as the homeless couple and their vicious dog who have set up camp on Kinsey’s landlord’s property (with his permission—Henry’s a soft touch—but Kinsey disapproves).

Grafton will be 79 when Z is published, and for years now, she’s jokingly promised that she’ll arrive at signings and events in a pink ambulance when the final book reaches stores. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple years ago and she seemed like an energetic and lively person, so here’s hoping she’ll be able to savor the success of her extraordinary achievement.

“The Color of Fear” by Marcia Muller and “Seven Days of Us” by Francesca Hornak

Yesterday, I received an email from NetGalley, the service that provides me with some of my review copies, chock-full of Christmas fiction. Did I want to read Christmas at Two Love Lane? How about Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe or The Rancher’s Christmas Song (“Ella and Beckett come from two different worlds, and it might take a Christmas miracle to finally bring them together”)?

My theory is that these books, along with the ubiquitous Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like “A Bramble House Christmas” and “Snow Globe Wishes,” are so popular because most people’s holidays fall short of picture-perfect perfection, and cozying up with a seasonally appropriate book or movie is more fun than arguing with your Trump-loving uncle or rehashing old grievances with your siblings.

The Color of FearMarcia Muller’s The Color of Fear is only tangentially a Christmas book, but it does take place during the holiday week, and features lots of the conspicuous consumption that has made me a little bit fed up with this series lately. Between the Christmas shopping and obligatory references to Sharon McCone’s “buttery leather furnishings,” Muller’s long-running P.I. tackles a case that hits close to home: the seeming hate crime that has put her Native American father into a coma. The issue of racism in the liberal Bay Area has been in the news (the SF Weekly outed a San Francisco Klansman, while the so-called “alt-right” thinks this is a fun place to hold rallies), so this novel, though probably written in the pre-Trump era, is surprisingly timely.

I did enjoy The Color of Fear more than most recent entries in the McCone series—I’m always a sucker for “This time it’s personal!” narratives in mystery novels—but I do find myself missing the young, scrappy and hungry private eye of old. Still, even if half the text of future volumes is devoted to loving descriptions of Sharon and Hy’s rooftop garden and art collection, I’m never going to quit reading these books. McCone has been a part of my life for too long to give up on her now.

Seven Days of UsI read an advance copy of Seven Days of Us a couple of months ago when I was down with a cold and was looking for something easy and light. Despite the fact that it was July, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it will be even more fun for readers who pick it up when it actually ’tis the season. A dysfunctional-family novel that is extremely heavy on coincidences, this Christmas romp is set in a British country estate and features a large cast of characters.

Olivia is a doctor who has been ordered to stay in quarantine due to her recent work in a disease-plagued African nation—and her whole family’s locked in with her. Phoebe, the antithesis of her serious physician sister, is obsessed with her upcoming wedding. Their parents, Emma and Andrew, have problems of their own, and no idea that a few family secrets are about to come to light and wreak havoc during their period of supposed isolation (naturally, not everyone in the family’s orbit manages to stay outside those four walls, despite the danger).

Seven Days of Us may sometimes strain credibility, but it’ll go down easy after a few glasses of eggnog. The ending may even coax a tear or two.

Note: Seven Days of Us will be published on Oct. 17, 2017. Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the review copy.

“The Widow” by Fiona Barton

The Widow by Fiona BartonI have had it up to here with thrillers featuring unreliable narrators and crazy plot twists. I was fully prepared to swear off such books for a while, but my friend Vallery recommended I read Fiona Barton’s The Widow, and I’m very glad I did. This is a first-rate work of psychological suspense.

The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in 2010, shortly after Jean Taylor became a widow. Her husband Glen was run over by a bus. Just a tragic accident. So why is Jean being relentlessly pursued by the press?

Through flashbacks, we gradually learn that Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of Bella Elliott, an adorable toddler who vanished without a trace from her garden while her single mom was briefly busy indoors. Bella becomes a national obsession in Britain—and if you think the attention paid to her case is too over-the-top, I urge you to Google Madeleine McCann—and eventually, Glen is put on trial for abducting her, despite the fact that no body was ever found. He and Jean become pariahs, and making things even more difficult for Jean is the fact that the couple was unable to have children of their own.

I don’t want to give away too much, but The Widow is a refreshingly straightforward combination of psychological suspense and good old-fashioned police procedural, as we get to know the detectives working on the case (and how it becomes an all-out fixation for one of them). It’s also an indictment of journalism as practiced in the U.K., which is all the more interesting considering that Fiona Barton worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Mail on Sunday. Reporters in the U.S. can be aggressive, but there seems to be a special breed of newsmen and women in England who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive. As The Widow proves, however, sometimes the subject of a story can bite back and use the press to her own advantage. In Jean, Barton has created a complex and fascinating character.