Paul Gunn, a 41-year-old pilot working in Manila when Pearl Harbor was attacked, will do whatever it takes to help win the air war in the Pacific and get back to Manila to rescue his family. “Pappy” Gunn works to the point of exhaustion, even in ill health, to modify and improve planes sent to the Pacific, train pilots, lead low altitude bombing runs, and even threaten quartermasters at gunpoint to get the supplies his crews need. Back in Manila, his wife Polly and their four children stay with friends until they are forced to move to the internment camp at Santo Tomas, a former university. Polly eventually toughens up and helps her family by deceiving the camp’s Japanese officers, and persistently demands that her children receive the medical care and housing they need, even if it’s not at Santo Tomas. The Gunn children help guard the family’s possessions, steal and smuggle food, spy, and keep secret a hidden radio. Set in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia, the remarkable Gunn family’s adventures will keep the reader in suspense to find out what happens. Indestructible is a readalike for Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff, and 81 Days Below Zero, by Brian Murphy.
Conclave by Robert Harris
In the near future, the Pope has died in his sleep, and Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, must lead the conclave of cardinals to select a new pope. Once the conclave begins, the cardinals under the age of 80 eat and sleep at the Casa Santa Marta and vote by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel, secluded from the outside world. Lomeli welcomes 117 cardinals, worrying about the homily he must preach the next day, only to meet Vincent Benitez, secretly named Cardinal and Archbishop of Baghdad by the pope. This might not sound like an exciting book, but it is an absorbing thriller that is hard to put down, with an ever intensifying pace, with hints of violence in the outside world, as the cardinals have trouble reaching a two-thirds majority in the early ballots. The beautiful paintings by Michelangelo contrast strongly with the humble rooms at the guesthouse and the mediocre food served by nuns in blue habits. Lomeli is investigating some of the leading contenders, hoping to avoid future scandals. There are a lot of characters, but Harris focuses on just a few. Tedesco is an Italian traditionalist, favoring a return to mass in Latin. Tremblay is an ambitious French Canadian who met with the Pope a few hours before his death. Bellini, the Vatican Secretary of State, is the solid liberal choice, while conservative African Adeyemi has a chance to become the first black pontiff. In the first ballot, Lomeli is surprised when he gets a few votes, as he has always been a manager, never a pastor, and has been having trouble praying and sleeping. Also, the unknown Benitez gets a vote. The author is best known for his books about World War II and Imperial Rome; I thought his novel Pompeii was very interesting. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, satisfying thriller with little violence, this is an excellent choice.
Plaid & Plagiarism by Molly MacRae
This book is an appealing beginning to a new cozy mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands. Librarian Janet, her daughter Tallie, and two of their friends buy a bookshop in Inversgail with plans to open a tearoom next door and a B & B upstairs. Making a quick visit to Janet’s house to see why her move has been delayed, Christine finds the kitchen full of trash while Summer, a reporter, finds a dead body in the garden shed. Later they find a biscuit tin full of threatening letters at the bookshop, which were probably written by the victim, advice columnist Una Graham. I found the four women a bit difficult to tell apart at first, but it was interesting having four amateur sleuths working together on the same case. There are plenty of descriptions of learning to run a bookshop, remodel a tearoom, and plenty of local colour, although sadly no scone recipes. A good start to the Highland Bookshop series, with some room for improvement.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
The island of St. Thomas in the 19th century makes a vivid setting for a biographical novel about Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro and his parents. Rachel roams around the island with Jestine, the daughter of her family’s cook, Adelle, and only reluctantly agrees to marry Isaac Petit, an older Jewish merchant with three children. She loves his children and their own, but does not love Isaac. After Isaac’s death, his nephew Frederic travels from Paris to run the family business. Rachel and Frederic fall scandalously in love. Camille is one of their children, whose fascination with color and island life distract him from his work at the family’s store. Surprisingly, Rachel coldly discourages his artistic talent, although Camille gets the encouragement he needs from Rachel’s friend Jestine. Several of the characters spend time in Paris, also colorfully drawn. A very strong sense of place, lively dialogue, complex characters, and a touch of magical realism make this book an enchanting read.
British Library Crime Classics
Recently I’ve read three of the British Library Crime Classics, mysteries originally published in 1935 and 1936. The series is described as “forgotten classics from the golden age of British crime writing”. 18 titles so far have recently been published in the U.S. by Poisoned Pen Press. I think that the books I’ve read will have broad appeal today.
The Cornish Coast Murders, by John Bude, is set in a small village on the coast of Cornwall. The mystery is discussed and partly solved during fireside chats in Reverend Dodd’s study, where he meets with the local doctor and Inspector Bigswell. When a local magistrate is apparently shot through a picture window, there are very few clues, suspects, or motives.
Death in the Tunnel, by Miles Burton, involves the death of a wealthy semi-retired businessman while alone in a locked train compartment, in a railway tunnel. There is no obvious motive for murder or suicide. The mystery is solved by the combination of careful detective work by Inspector Arnold and other, unnamed police officers, and the imaginative ideas of of Arnold’s friend, amateur criminologist Desmond Merrion.
Death on the Cherwell, by Mavis Doriel Hay, is set at a woman’s college at Oxford University. An unpopular member of the college staff is found dead in a canoe on a cold January afternoon by several of the students, who proceed to help police investigate the death.
The settings of these novels are charming to a modern reader, the intricate plotting is first-rate, the violence level is low, and the writing is compelling and richly detailed, making for quite a pleasant reading experience.
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
After a minor medical procedure intended to make Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent able to sense each other’s emotions, Briddey hears a man’s voice, and panics. She’s hearing the thoughts of C.B. Schwartz, a nerdy coworker at Commspan. C.B. tries to convince Briddey that she’s now telepathic, and that no one else must know. Trent wants help to develop a new phone app, while Briddey just wants some peace and quiet, unlikely given her overly intrusive Irish-American family and gossipy coworkers. Briddey’s young niece Maeve gets involved as C.B. teaches Briddey how to quiet her mind before Trent and their doctor find out what really happened. Fans of slapstick romantic comedy will enjoy this fast-paced romp, which skewers our society’s dependence on digital technology and avoidance of self-reflection and true intimacy. The author nicely contrasts internet dating sites with the simple pleasures of reading in a library surrounded by others, or taking a walk late at night.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.