Friday, April 29, 2016

We the AnimalsWe the Animals by Justin Torres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"'This is your heritage,' he said, as if from this dance we could know about his own childhood, about the flavor and grit of tenement buildings in Spanish Harlem, and projects in Red Hook, and dance halls, and city parks, and about his own Paps, how he beat him, how he taught him to dance, as if we could hear Spanish in his movements, as if Puerto Rico was a man in a bathrobe [...]"

We the Animals (2011), a short, largely autobiographical novella about childhood and youth in an ethnically mixed family, is the literary debut by Justin Torres. We meet the narrator when he is about to turn seven and through a brief series of separately titled vignettes we follow him until he is on the brink of adulthood. The narrator's father, Paps, is Puerto Rican while his Ma is white; the boy has two slightly older brothers. "You ain't white and you ain't Puerto Rican," Paps tells the boys. "Watch how a purebred dances, watch how we dance," he says, showing how proud he is of his heritage. We witness the family's struggles, with Ma working night shifts, Paps trying to keep a job, and the marriage going through a rough period.

The first part of the novella is absolutely outstanding: the evocatively magical and powerful writing conveys the colors, sounds, and feelings of childhood and some of its essential aspects, such as when the boys interpret events they have no way of understanding, and how these interpretations - rather than the events themselves - shape them. The bittersweet vignettes, charming and often painfully honest, have made me recollect some vague memories and long forgotten impressions from my own childhood. And there is much more: this very short book will open the eyes of people who - like this reviewer - were raised in a monoethnic family in a monoethnic environment.

But then, almost from the very beginning, the novella offers intimations of something different about the narrator, hints that he is not quite like his brothers. Ma is of course the first to know it (a very brief scene on the day of the narrator's seventh birthday is stunning), the brothers feel it and yet firmly stand by the junior at least until much later, and Paps eventually understands the difference too. At about two-thirds of the story we witness a rather dramatic change of focus: with the boys reaching adolescence the narrator defies the macho ethos of Paps and his brothers when he begins shaping his identity and defining his own self. While so far he has struggled with his mixed ethnicity and with understanding of the adult world, now the matter of his sexual orientation becomes more important.

The main strength of the novella is the masterly portrayal of the gradual shift from the "we voice" - the collective voice of the three brothers - to the individual voice of the narrator. The coming of age is represented by the "us" morphing into the "I". Alas, I also perceive a weakness: the brief narrative structure of the novella is not strong enough to support the weight of all these diverse major themes: coming of age, multi-ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

To sum up: while until about the midpoint of the novella I had felt that I was reading a literary masterpiece, I ended up reading just a good book: moving and honest yet not particularly remarkable. Close to four stars, but not quite there.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Overnight to Many Distant CitiesOvernight to Many Distant Cities by Donald Barthelme
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The favorite dance of Captain Blood is the grave and haunting Catalonian sardana, in which the participants join hands facing each other to form a ring which gradually becomes larger, then smaller, then larger again. It is danced without smiling, for the most part. He frequently dances with his men, in the middle of the ocean, after lunch, to the music of a single silver trumpet."

I liked Donald Barthelme's Forty Stories a lot and rated it with four stars. Alas, his Overnight to Many Distant Cities (1983) has been a disappointment and, in fact, if not for the last piece in the set, the title story, I would have to rate the book even lower than with two stars.

Overnight is a collection of small literary pieces, of which many but not all are very short stories. They are interspersed with "interludes", for some reason printed in italics, but I am too obtuse to discern connections between the "stories" and the intervening material. It would be nice to be able to say that the longer pieces form a mosaic of literary snapshots of life, but then the verb "form" implies some sort of design, which is missing, or maybe again I am too dull-witted to recognize it. The pieces of the mosaic seem to be randomly thrown onto the pages, lacking any unifying order, sort of like a lazy avant-garde painter randomly squeezing colors out of paint tubes onto the canvas.

But let's not quibble about the lack of unifying theme; after all Heraclitus said "The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony." But then the reader would probably want the individual pieces of the mosaic to distinguish themselves in some way - be interesting, amusing, funny, perhaps make some point, carry a message, etc. Alas, only two out of the 24 pieces have made an impression on me: Captain Blood is a wildly funny post-modern take on the activities of the famous buccaneer, who dances sardana with his crew, "after lunch, to the music of a single silver trumpet." Then the title piece, a collection of scenes that the narrator remembers from his visits to many distant places, does convey the deep and intense feeling of nostalgia, beautifully rendered in Barthelme's prose.

Some pieces are quite hard to get through: I particularly dislike the bewildering and opaque interlude about teaching a baby not to tear pages out of books and the piece called Wrack composed solely of unfocused and rambling dialogue. Mr. Barthelme can write great prose, but this is not his best work and the set would be a poor introduction to his writing for a novice reader.

Two stars.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Moving TargetThe Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The cab turned off U.S. 101 in the direction of the sea. The road looped round the base of a brown hill into a canyon lined with scrub oak."

Thus begins one of the most important detective series of the 20th century - Ross Macdonald's series featuring Lew Archer, the wise, decent, and compassionate private eye. The Moving Target (1949) is the first novel in the cycle, and on the same very first page we can find Macdonald's evocative prose about Southern California:

"The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon's mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property; color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small."

Lew Archer is hired by Mrs. Sampson, the wife of a very rich oilman who has disappeared. Not that she cares about her husband, of course, but since there are indications that the disappearance might be a kidnapping, she is worried about the money she is expecting to inherit. Two of other main characters are Miranda, the Sampsons' daughter, and Alan, a young pilot and Mr. Sampson's subordinate from their military service during the war. As the plot progresses we meet many other characters - too many to keep track of their individual connections to the plot - some of whom are on the wrong side of the law, some on the right one, and many on both. The story is complicated yet linear, unlike typical Macdonald's plot of his later books where the secrets from the deep past drive the current events.

It is hard to believe that the book had been written before I was born (prehistoric times) because only the dialogues - and not too many of them at that - sound dated. The prose is not yet as stellar as in some newer books by the author, but there are several passages that are worth immortalizing as quotes. "I fell against the piano. Consciousness went out in jangling discord, swallowed by the giant shadow." I also like the "podex osculation" phrase, which should be used more often in today's politically correct, euphemistic, "let's pretend" kind of world.

On the negative side, the character of Miranda is not drawn well: she is much less convincing than, for instance, her mother and I am not able to believe that she is a real person. Many of the "bad" characters are just caricatures. The Kierkegaard quote on the penultimate page sounds quite pretentious. Yet overall, I am inclined to recommend this 67-year-old novel.

Two-and-three-quarter stars.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other ExcursionsVisiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions by Martin Amis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Visually, though, one got some point of [...] Mick. This well-put-together, vitamin-packed unit of a human being does not really dance any more: it's simply that his head, his shoulders, his pelvis, both his arms, both his legs, both his huge feet and both his buttocks are wriggling, at great speed, independently, all the time."

The hilarious quote is, of course, about Mick Jagger, whose stage performance during the 1976 Rolling Stones concert at Earls Court did not impress Martin Amis much; I wonder what the author would write about twerking, were he inclined to watch such a highly sophisticated dance performance. The quote also provides a general sense of what the reader might expect from Martin Amis' collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993). The author himself provides a dead-on description of his work: "a book of this kind [might be] described by a reviewer as 'a garage sale': the writer [is] selling his junk, in informal surroundings."

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov is a collection of 33 short journalistic pieces that were published in various newspapers and magazines, such as Observer, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Vogue, etc., between mid-1970s and the early 1990s. The topics range from entertainment, through sports, to politics, and - of course - literature. Most of the material here is pure journalistic fluff - topical, gossipy, and lightweight - but this fluff is extremely well-written, as usual for Mr. Amis, and occasionally hilarious. So even if the material is not quite relevant after so many years, it is hard not to laugh out loud when reading, for example, the following characterization of Isaac Asimov's autobiography: "[...] the book's most persistent theme is Asimov's inexhaustible, all-conquering self-love." Not only is the piece about Madonna's (that is Ms. Ciccone's) book Sex outrageously funny - my natural modesty prevents me from quoting numerous juicy bits that involve Ms. Ciccone's love of her certain body parts - but it is also quite astute about the essence of the post-modern culture and entertainment.

Few pieces are more serious: I particularly like the vitriolic essay about the British writer, John Braine, and the portrayal of his evolution from the idiotic left-wing stance when he was praising civil freedoms in the Soviet Union of the 1950s to equally cretinous right-wing pronouncements later in his life. I like the thoughtful piece on Roman Polanski, and to end with the timely topic of elections in the U.S., here's a great quote from a bit about the Republican Party convention in 1988, where Mr. Amis presents the main speakers thusly: "An actor, then an actress, then an ad, and then another actor - Reagan, with the Speech."

Yet - despite occasionally apparent wisdom, great writing, and frequently hilarious bits - it would be awkward in 2016 to recommend this somewhat dated collection.

Two and a half stars.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Far Side of the DollarThe Far Side of the Dollar by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"People are trying so hard to live through their children. And the children keep trying so hard to live up to their parents, or live them down. Everybody's living through or for or against somebody else. It doesn't make too much sense, and it isn't working too well."

Having completed the "Nicolas Freeling project" (re-reading and reviewing all his 41 books) a few months ago, I am now working on Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar in private life), a "Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America" and, to me, an author much more important than Raymond Chandler. I read all Macdonald's books between 1960s and 1990s, and The Far Side of The Dollar, published in 1964, is the sixth re-read in my project. Well, it could be one of the better books by Ross Macdonald if not for the awkwardly labored ending.

Lew Archer arrives at a school for "delinquent and disturbed" minors to help the principal find an escapee, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, who sneaked out over the fence in the middle of the night. Tom's rich parents put him in the school trying to "straighten the boy up" after he had taken a neighbor's car and totaled it. Eventually, the plot gets immensely complicated, involving many characters and spanning the years from 1944 to the early 1960s, yet a synopsis is hardly needed. This is a quintessential Macdonald plot, where sins of fathers and mothers cast deep shadows on the lives of their children, shadows that hurt and kill. Family secrets and lies, ugly and painful, are uncovered to wreak havoc with people's lives.

There are many things that I like about the novel. The quote shown in the epigraph offers a sharp diagnosis of a human tendency that causes many a ruined lives. The romantic thread, between Lew Archer and Susanna Drew, is touching, realistic, and well written and - as a bonus - the reader gets a rare glimpse into Archer's past. The Hotel Barcelona motif and Archer's trip to Pocatello, Idaho, are the highlights of the novel. And while the secrets from the past begin to get revealed rather early, the mystery of "what happened on Sunday morning" remains almost until the end of the novel.

Until the last twenty or so pages this reads as an at least three-star book, but then the author offers an overlong, theatrical, artificial ending, which ruins the novel for me.

Two and a half stars.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with TimeJ. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-face with Time by David Attwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Coetzee famously says, 'all writing is autobiography' and 'all autobiography is storytelling'."

I got hooked on John Maxwell Coetzee about three years ago when my wife's book club was reading Disgrace. I was completely stunned by the power of the novel and by the unbelievably precise prose. Disgrace is certainly is among the very few best books I have ever read. Since then, my count of Coetzee's books has reached 18, including his non-fiction works of literary criticism; all my 18 reviews are posted here on Goodreads and they are all high-rated, with two other masterpieces warranting full five stars: Waiting for the Barbarians and Boyhood .

No wonder that I have been extremely interested in David Attwell's J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing. Face-to-Face with Time (2015). The author - who worked under J.M. Coetzee's guidance as a Master's student at the University of Cape Town and then collaborated with him on a book titled Doubling the Point - states that the goal of his study is "to read Coetzee's life and work together". His research method has been based on looking not "at the finished works, but at the authorship that underlies them: its creative processes and sources [...]". Mr. Attwell spent many weeks reading Coetzee's manuscripts and notebooks and was thus able to discover "the remarkable ways in which [the authorship] transforms [the] often quite ordinary materials into unforgettable fiction."

Being just a casual reader I am not in the slightest qualified to discuss the literary creative process and will just mention a few of the main topics of the book. The epigraph quote from Attwell indicates a strong focus on the autobiographical component of virtually all of Coetzee's fiction work. Coetzee's struggles with the issues of realism of fiction are the other principal theme of the study. Mr. Attwell quotes Coetzee who feels "bound to produce" realism "if the book is to be written", but with each next novel seems to spend less and less time on providing sufficient layers of realism to ground his fiction in.

Yet another principal topic is the metafictional aspect of Coetzee's work, and particularly the question of whether and "why the novel should be self-conscious." The author reports Coetzee's endorsement of Robert Alter's thought-provoking answer "that the self-conscious novel is aware of impermanence and death in a way that realism cannot be." Mr. Attwell also discusses some critics' (particularly South African ones) attacks on "detachment from the immediacies of South Africa" that they perceive in many Coetzee's novels.

While Attwell's book is a must-read for literary critics and literature students as well as for all people, who - like this reviewer - are obsessed with Coetzee's writing the casual reader may find the study too specialized. Also, Mr. Attwell's writing is not as superbly lucid as Coetzee's, whose prose - even in the most intense philosophical fragments - is crystalline clear, something that might be attributed to his degree in mathematics and practice as a computer programmer.

Although I have read the book with extreme interest - in two consecutive late-night sittings - I am not sure whether it has changed or even deepened my view of Coetzee's work in any appreciable way. As an ordinary reader I am not sure I want to know about the evolution of a literary work of art before the author decides on the final version. The books, the finished "products", speak to me much stronger than the analyses of the creative processes that underlie them.

Thank you, Ewa for buying me this book!

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Einstein's MonstersEinstein's Monsters by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Just as I was thinking that no century could possibly be dumber than the nineteenth, along comes the twentieth. I swear, the entire planet seemed to be staging some kind of stupidity contest. I could tell then how the human story would end. Anybody could. Just the one outcome."

When Martin Amis was writing Einstein's Monsters in 1987 he could not know that the twentieth century might eventually be regarded as relatively mild in terms of human stupidity. The twenty-first century is on track to break the record. Already in 2001 terrorists managed to kill several thousands people in the name of religion or politics or whatever "cause" or "pressing social issue" needed to be urgently brought to the world's attention through random mass murder.

Mr. Amis' book consists of a non-fiction essay and five short stories. It presents a powerful and passionate condemnation of nuclear weapons, and a warning to the human race that we are standing on the brink of annihilation. While killing other people has always been human favorite pastime, the weapons have never been as powerful as they are now and the potential to wipe out all human life on our planet has never existed before. It does now.

The thoughtful, eloquent, and convincing essay Thinkability is to me the best part of the book. I have a personal relationship with the topic: exactly thirty years ago at my university I co-taught, with my colleague from the philosophy department, a course called Games, Weapons, Morals, focused on the nuclear arms race, the strategy of deterrence, and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (being a mathematician I covered the game theory aspect, and my colleague talked about the immorality of it all). Anthony Kenny's The Logic of Deterrence, the work frequently referred to in the essay, was one of our required readings. Mr. Amis's essay would have been a great reading, had we taught the course one year later.

Things have changed a little during the thirty years, and obviously for worse. At least in the 1980s the nuclear weapons were under tight control of just two superpowers, who were led by somewhat reasonable people. Neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Gorbachev seemed to believe that the actual use of nuclear weapons is any kind of a solution. Now we face the growing risk of activists of whatever flavor - religious, political, social - getting nuclear weapons (or chemical or biological for that matter). Once these activists get their goodies they will be so proud and happy to kill millions or billions of people for the good of their cause. So we may be up for a global apocalypse any time soon.

I am less enthusiastic about the fiction component of Einstein's Monsters. The first two stories only obliquely deal with the potential nuclear annihilation; I much prefer the first one, Bujak and the Strong Force with its clever twist on the issues of deterrence and retaliation. Of the three stories that are situated in a post-apocalyptic world, the last one, The Immortals, in which the all-out nuclear catastrophe happens in 2045 (I doubt that we really have so much time left), is the best - perhaps because it is the most straightforward. The story The Time Disease is also notable: Mr. Amis returns to the same concept of "time reversal" in his famous 1991 work Time's Arrow .

There are days I think that maybe mankind - home to all these activists ready to die and kill to further whatever cause - deserves to be wiped out.

Three and a half stars.

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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Ancient RainThe Ancient Rain by Domenic Stansberry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"

In April 1975 members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the group notorious for Patty Hearst kidnapping that happened a year earlier, robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, California. During the robbery a customer of the bank, Myrna Opsahl, was accidentally shot and killed. This actual tragic event provides the setup for Domenic Stansberry’s fictional crime story / legal drama The Ancient Rain (2008), whose plot takes place in 2002 and deals with the long-delayed aftermath of this politically motivated robbery.

This is my first book by this celebrated author, Edgar Award winner for The Confession and Hammett Award finalist, and indeed it is a solid, compulsively readable, and - most importantly - well-written novel. I much prefer this book over cliché-ridden novels by John Grisham, mainly because of the palpable political and social contexts of the plot that provide depth usually missing in Grisham's books. I am quite eager to read other books by Mr. Stansberry.

Dante Mancuso, an ex-cop who works for an investigative firm, receives a phone call from his fellow investigator, Bill Owens, who is getting arrested for the twenty-seven-year-old murder committed by an SLA team. An ambitious prosecutor is reopening the case, ostensibly because one of the original witnesses who provided an alibi for Owens at the time of the shooting is ready to change her testimony. However, the real reason seems to be the much increased activity of homeland security forces that need to raise their profile and be more visible to the nervous public after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Dante is hired by influential friends of Owens to work on the defense and the author follows the case until the trial and verdict.

The best aspect of the novel is the juxtaposition between the SLA’s fight against the supposedly “fascist regime” of 1975 and the situation in 2002 with its oppressive atmosphere of curtailing civic freedoms owing to the ongoing "war on terror" after the 9/11 events. Another strength of the book is its cynicism in showing the real motives driving the legal system, which is not at all about justice but rather "about the prosecutor and his promotions, the newspaperman and his story, the next election and the allocation of the budget."

The rich tapestry of threads in The Ancient Rain includes a well-developed romantic plot that involves Dante, his wife Marilyn, and an admirer of hers; the extraordinary hospital-bed sex scene between Dante and Marilyn is powerful yet tactfully written. On the other hand, the depiction of human psychology is to me the weakest aspect of the novel. With the exception of Marilyn, the characters feel rather paper-thin, clichéd, and schematic, just about on Grisham's level, which is the main reason for my rounding the fractional rating down, from "very good" (setup of the plot, political and social themes) to just "good".

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

JunkyJunky by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"I have learned the junk equation. Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life."

William S. Burrough's Junky (1953) - a classic of the "addiction literature" genre - is my first book of this author, one the most famous writers of the so-called Beat Generation. The original title was "Junk", and the book was also published under the current spelling "Junkie". This is a strongly autobiographical text so, in a sense, it would be valid to categorize it as close to non-fiction. The book describes the everyday activities related to the opioid (morphine and heroin) drug habit: getting junk, shooting junk, selling junk - or committing small crime - to earn money to buy junk.

The narrator briefly presents his early life, from his birth in 1914, through school, college, to being drafted and then rejected by the Army on the basis of some history of mental illness. We then follow the junkie's life from his getting hooked on morphine in 1944 until the late 1940s. The narrator's story very closely follows the actual events of Mr. Burrough's life, but the author does not spend much time on non-drug-related events: after all work and family are marginal to the junky way of life.

The dispassionate, clinical observations of various aspects of a junkie's life are the best feature of the book. We learn about the effects of different drugs on the mind and body of the user, about the addict's "junk sickness" suffering - the agony of withdrawal, and about the sweetest pleasure of relief when the junkie's body finally "drinks from the needle" again. We read about the minute details of drug pushing activities, when a small-time junkie sells single doses of opiates to other junkies. We learn about the efforts to set the "reduction schedule" for "tapering off", efforts that always fail yet are never given up. We follow the junkies when they "work the lushes" - steal money from sleeping drunkards in parks, trains, and stations. The account of the narrator's therapy in the Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison - where he checked in himself - is particularly interesting.

The author does not offer any moral judgments and does not try to submit excuses for the drug habit. The addiction is a fact of life and even if the junkie - at a cost of terrible suffering - manages to go "off junk", we know it is most likely only for a short while: a few weeks or few months; eventually most junkies will again experience the deep orgasm of the morphine or heroin shot.

I am not in the least interested in the topic of drug abuse but I appreciate the detached nature of the author's account, which often reads almost like a research paper on drug addiction. There are several passages in the book, though, that do not fit the rest of the text, for instance the elegiac portrayal of the Rio Grande Valley or the "economic lessons" about vanishing middle class and the contrast between the haves and the have nots. While I do not particularly care for Junky I am still planning to read the author's most famous work, Naked Lunch. One more quote from the book is shown after the rating.

Two and a half stars.

"A junky runs on junk time. When his junk is cut off, the clock runs down and stops. All he can do is hang on and wait for non-junk time to start. A sick junkie has no escape from external time, no place to go. He can only wait."

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Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Detling Secret (Joan Kahn-Harper, #7)The Detling Secret by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Justice and self-interest are often identical, he thought, and mentally noted this phrase as one to be used at some time in speech."

Julian Symons' The Detling Secret (1982) is a memorable book, but not because of its plot or literary value; instead it challenges the reader's pre-conceived notions. Consider this: some threads in the novel deal with concerns about terrorism and volatility of the stock market. There is some talk about restructuring companies to make them profitable. All this sounds quite contemporary, like the twenty-first-century stuff. On the other hand, after having read the first 30 pages of the novel I began mentally placing the story in the 1930s. But then, suddenly, Oscar Wilde appears at an engagement party for one of the main characters in the novel and does "more than anybody else could have done to make the party a success." So what is going on? Stock market concerns or Oscar Wilde? We soon learn it is the latter: the plot takes place in the fall and early winter of 1893, over a hundred and twenty years ago, and just five years after the Jack the Ripper's affair. The terrorism thread refers to the struggles of Irish nationalists who may be plotting dynamite explosions to blow up parts of public buildings. And stock market worries, and human greed... well, they seem to be forever.

Bernard Ross, a member of British Parliament, has an unusual past: he spent his youth in the United States and there is not much of a record of his activities there. He marries Dolly, the daughter of Sir Arthur Detling, a heir to "one of the most ancient baronetcies in the land." The story follows the Detling family, including the younger daughter, Nelly, Bernard, some of his friends, as well as a rich businessman, speculator, and a social climber, Joseph Blader, who is marketing a brand new concept in fountain pens - pens with exchangeable ink cartridges (one could say that Mr. Blader has a 1893 startup company). The socially conscious Dolly volunteers for the Association for the Assistance of Derelict Girls, and Nelly, an art student, is planning to elope with her boyfriend. The leisurely plot is interrupted by the first murder that happens in London and seems to be connected to Bernard and Nelly. All characters gather to celebrate Christmas at Chadderley, the Detlings' opulent residence in Kent, where the second murder occurs and - what's worse - the eggs are also overdone for breakfast on that day. "A bummer!" one would say, but perhaps not in December of 1893.

The characterizations are really strong, the portrait of the Victorian times is rich and vivid - it is amazing how little the people have changed since then - and the writing, as usual for Mr. Symons, is first class. Yet the novel is ultimately not that interesting, and the mystery/crime aspect is pretty weak. This is my ninth novel by the author, all reviews are on Goodreads, and with the exception of totally wonderful The Progress of a Crime , they all are two-star ratings. Yet I will keep reading Mr. Symons for good prose is always a pleasure.

Two and a half stars.

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