Posts Tagged ‘Alexander McCall Smith’

bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.


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chung-Chung! I interrupted this books blogs last May to pay tribute to the demise of the original Law and Order after 20 years, although reruns continue to tape loop on cable TV. I woke up early yesterday to Laura Linney’s voice as she testified she killed the Japanese businessman in self-defense. Now I’m wondering if that episode is one that will be adapted for Law and Order UK. Yes, the Brit version premiered on BBC America last night with the episode about how a slumlord’s efforts to get rid of tenants resulted in a baby’s death. 

Ok, so I already knew the story, but Anglophile that I am, I adored the accents, the atmosphere, the barristers’ wigs, and several of my favorite actors: Jamie Bamber as a Logan-like detective, Harriet Walter as his boss, Freema Aygeman as a junior crown prosecutor. I almost didn’t recognize Bradley Walsh as veteran copper Ronnie Brooks; he put on 30 pounds to be the Lennie Briscoe counterpart. Further episodes are scheduled for 9 p.m. Fridays.

Meanwhile, I was underwhelmed by the premiere of Law and Order LA last week with its cliched, predictable plot. I felt like I’d seen it all before, the Hollywood mansions and young celebs, stage mom cashing in on daughter’s fame. Yawn. If I’m going to watch same-old stories, let them be in London, whose distinctive neighborhoods provide less-familiar vistas.

And on that note (chung-Chung), I’ll return to two new books, in which the London setting is integral to the tale.

Ruth Rendell’s latest suspense outing, Portobello, takes readers to Notting Hill and the famous Portobello Road street market, where you can buy everything — food, furniture, books, beddings, jewelry, junk –except live animals or birds. Stuffed ones? No problem. Thousands of visitors wander the stalls and shops on Saturdays, and I agree with Rendell that once you go, you want to go again. “Its thread attaches itself to you and a twitch on it summons you to return.”

The thread that ties together the disparate characters in Rendell’s twisty story is a money-filled envelope that sauve gallery owner Eugene Wren discovers on the street. Instead of turning it into the police, he posts a “Found” notice with his phone number. The consequences lead to a young layabout turning to a life of crime (it runs in the family), Eugene’s doctor fiance being drawn into the affairs of a mentally troubled man, a house fire, a sudden death, a falling-out among thieves, and another murder.  Eccentricity is the order of the day, and Rendell briskly knots all plot points before neatly unraveling them. I could have done without Eugene’s boring addiction to a certain brand of sugarless candy, but at least it takes him to assorted colorful shops and take-aways on Portobello Road.

Readers move south toward the Thames to Pimlico for Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions, a whimsical on-line novel serialized for the London Telegraph. Smith, who had his first big success with the No. 1 Lady Detective Agency series set in Botswana has become quite prolific; he’s now juggling four series.

Corduroy Mansions, which takes its name from that of a shabby genteel mansion block in Pimlico, follows the intertwining lives of its residents. Of course, they are eccentrics to one degree or another, and their everyday comings-and-goings are often agreeably comical.

I suppose William French, a 50ish widower and wine merchant, is the central character. His efforts to dislodge his grown son Eddie from his flat include inviting a woman to live with him (he’s thinking platonic, she’s thinking maybe more), and acquiring a clever “Pimlico terrier,” Freddie de la Hay. Eddie claims to be allergic to dogs, but Freddie is as irresistible as another character, Oedipus Snark, is odious. One of the girls who shares the flat below William is secretary to Oedipus, whose girlfriend literary agent is about give up on him, and whose mother is writing his biography.  There’s a bit of a mystery surrounding a possibly valuable painting, hints of romance, and much satirical drollery. I’m looking forward to the next entries in the series. So much so that I’m now following “freddiedelahay” on Twitter.

Open Book: You already know of my L&O addiction. I think Ruth Rendell, whom I’ve interviewed several times, writes masterful crime fiction, both as Rendell and Barbara Vine. I can’t believe Portobello (Scribner)was just waiting for me on the library shelf. I once sat next to Alexander McCall Smith at a book luncheon, and he told me his friends call him “Sandy.” He has a lovely Scots accent and was wearing a kilt. I downloaded the e-book version of Corduroy Mansions (Knopf Doubleday) to my nook because I like the title, the cover and Sandy.

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