Pandemic Plots

Stories from the unformed, undated pandemic blur are starting to show up in fiction. Two of my recent reads were both set from the beginning of the lockdown requirements, one in England, one in the US. The first is the latest installment of Elly Griffith’s terrific Ruth Galloway series. (My husband is reading these right now and has barely come up for air!) When I began reading The Locked Room I wasn’t sure I wanted to delve into that weird time. I was surprised by my reaction. But as I got into it I noted that it was helpful to fictionalize the experience, and I appreciated how Elly Griffiths did that.

The other book is The Sentence by Louis Erdrich. I always think that reading Erdrich is like sitting beside a gently flowing river; it just flows along with such beautiful writing. The Sentence is no exception. It’s the only book Erdrich has written in the present, and it is wonderful. The pandemic is like a background character for the story, and the story itself described everything from ghosts to the struggles of a small bookstore and the daily lives of its staff. It also takes place during the terrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and chronicles the participation in grief and solidarity of the tribal people of that city.

Both these books offer perspective on the unusual time in which we are still living, and they are great reads!

M. L. Longworth’s Provençal Mysteries

A month ago or so my husband and I opened a new mystery series on Britbox: Murder in Provence. Sadly the first season has only three episodes, but we are hoping for another season. It was most enjoyable.

As we watched I had a feeling I had known these stories before. And indeed I discovered I had read the first novel in this series by M. L. Longworth. I re-read that first one and am now on number 4 of 9. (Number 10 is coming out in October – hooray!)

The main characters, Antoine Verlaque, and his partner Marine Bonnet, are very well-drawn, and their relationship forms an important part of each novel. Through their stories of their families and friends, we learn a lot about the very interesting culture of Provence and of life in France generally. Her descriptions of landscape, food, and wine are amazing! I really like authors who set books in specific places and use real names of streets and landmarks. (There is one Seattle author I won’t read because the books are clearly set in Seattle but the very obvious streets are given different names and it just doesn’t work for me.)

This is a very enjoyable series, and I highly recommend it. Here is book 1:

Elly Griffiths

I first heard of her in the newsletter of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society, announcing a talk she will give in June. Then, almost the very next day, a friend mentioned her books in passing. So I thought I should check it out. She writes two different series, and the one I chose features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk. And I am totally hooked.

Griffiths is the pen name for English writer Domenica de Rosa. Her description of the Norfolk landscape is just wonderful and worth the read for that alone. And, in Ruth Galloway, she has a sympathetic protagonist who deals with life’s everyday joys, sorrows, and choices like anyone else would. Griffiths’ descriptions of Ruth’s thinking make up much of the plots, and these descriptions are spot on.

Fortunately, Griffiths is very prolific, and there are currently 13 Ruth Galloway novels! Her other series is called The Brighton Mysteries and I’ll look forward to reading those as well.

Order is important here, as she really develops the characters. The first book is The Crossing Places.

Pilgrim’s Way by Abdulrazak Gurnah

When Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year I set out to learn more about him. He is Tanzanian from Zanzibar. He came to England as a refugee in the 1960’s. He lives in Canterbury and is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Kent.

He writes in English and is very prolific, with wonderful and important stories about the experience of refugees. I picked Pilgrims Way as an entry point for his novels. It’s the best book I read all year. I don’t know that I have encountered another book that so plainly and powerfully articulates the strength of racial division and the impact of daily attacks both verbal and physical.

Although not named, the setting is probably Canterbury where Gurnah lives. The title references an ancient pilgrim path from Tunbridge Wells to Canterbury. It is an ironic parallel to the lives of refugees finding their way in a complicated, closed, and different society.

Venice and Vigata

When I posted on Facebook recently about Inspector (Commissario in Italian) Montalbano a friend asked about the comparison between him and Donna Leon’s Inspector (Commissario) Brunetti. I think this is an interesting question so I’ll take a stab at it.

They are different locations: Montalbano in Sicily, and Brunetti in Venice. The location shapes the character of the story. Both authors use the languages of the place – Veneto and Siciliano. And both include the different idioms unique to the place. Camilleri writes in Italian and Siciliano and is translated into English. The translator, Stephen Sartarelli, does include notes in the books as even Italians need help with some of the words. Donna Leon writes in English, and has never officially allowed her books to be translated into Italian because she lived in Venice (a very small city) and didn’t want the daily notoriety. (She now lives in Switzerland.)

Both Montalbano and Brunetti are inspectors (commissarios), part of the civilian police force. And they both have complicated relationships with the carbinieri, the military police. They also both have great disdain for their immediate superiors and have a mischievous attitude towards them. They also each have a regular team of detectives that accompany them on their cases. We do get to know Montalbano’s Augello and Fazio better than Brunetti’s assistants. The medical examiners are a bit different. Rizzardi in the Brunetti books is skilled, competent, and serious. Pasquano in the Montalbano books is certainly competent, but also a bit of a cannoli-loving buffoon.

And, speaking of cannoli, food plays a huge part in both series. Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina prepares amazing dishes that are ready for him on his return home in the evening, and Camilleri’s descriptions of Montalbano’s delights at these creations are wonderful. Montalbano also eats lunch almost every day at Enzo’s where the owner simply presents him with the best thing of the day. In the Brunetti books, his regular bar stops for a coffee and maybe a quick tramezzino and a glass of white wine (all eaten standing in the Venetian way) are accompanied with his delight at whatever his wife Paola has prepared for dinner. Leon, like Camilleri, describes the food in wonderful detail so we can almost imagine being at the table with them.

Those are the parallel pieces of these books. But each has its own very distinct feel. When reading these you’ll be transported to each of these unique and beautiful locations in Italy and learn well about the culture, the crime, and yes, the food!

I’ve written extensively about both of these series before, but here are the first two books of each so you can get started if you’ve missed these delightful reads.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

A friend told me about this book a while ago so I checked it out. It’s the first novel by Osman, who is an English television personality. He intends this to be a series of four books about these older people in a luxury retirement complex in Kent. The second one, The Man Who Died Twice, is also out now. There are already talks about a TV series and maybe a movie.

This is a fun premise that mostly works. The main characters meet every Thursday to talk about murder, both old unsolved cases and a current one on the retirement complex premises. There’s a bit of political drama as well, including the residents needing to defend the property on which the complex stands. The book is often very funny, but I thought the storyline dragged a bit in the middle. I did enjoy the characters, and there is quite a bit of thoughtful writing about aging and its challenges, as well the dynamics of grief.

I’m looking forward to reading the next one, and certainly recommend The Thursday Murder Club for a light, fun read.

State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

I am not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, although I admire her courage and confidence. I am a big fan of Louis Penny’s novels, so I was intrigued when they teamed up to write a political thriller, State of Terror. Right away there were amazing reviews from trusted places. I’m always a bit suspicious of reviews that call a book “a real page-turner,” but this one definitely was one for me!

It’s a great plot and is maybe just a bit close to the bone for the current political climate. And it certainly kept me guessing! At one point midway, I thought there was a weak spot in the plot. I was wrong about that! And it was a bit unnerving to think about how much Hillary Clinton really knows. For all of the Louise Penny fans, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say the book includes a visit to Three Pines.

Among the best parts for me were the friendships defined among the characters, especially the women. Penny and Clinton used names from real-life loved people, and that honoring adds depth and richness to the whole story.

The book is worth the piece at the end of the book that each of them wrote about how they got into doing this and what the experience was like. It reminded me of my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers and her dedication to her friends at the beginning of Busman’s Honeymoon: You [Muriel], Helen, and Bar, were wantonly sacrificed on the altar of that friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall! [Dorothy L. Sayers, dedication in Busman’s Honeymoon, 1937.]

A friend sent this piece from CBS Sunday Morning, an interview with Penny and Clinton:

This is a good read!

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War by Jacqueline Winspear

I really enjoy the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and have written about that series here. The same friend who first introduced me to Maisie recommended this stand-alone novel by Winspear. If you have read Maisie Dobbs, you know that the author’s historical research is quite remarkable. This really shines in this book. We learn so much about the effect of WWI on all sorts of people in England. This war completely upended British society, and Winspear has done a grand job of narrating that upheaval.

I don’t think this book is quite as good as the Maisie Dobbs books, largely because I think character development is one of Winspear’s strong suits and there’s not quite enough time here. I also thought the ending was a bit overly sentimental, so will enjoy hearing others’ opinions.

It’s definitely worth reading. The title comes clear as the story unfolds.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano

We have so enjoyed the books by Andrea Camilleri about Sicilian detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano. They are such great stories with amazing characters, people you come to know and enjoy. They are very funny, and also so well describe the current challenges of Italy today, and particularly Sicily.

Camilleri’s career was in the theater, but he also wrote the occasional novel. In 1994 he wrote the first Montalbano book, The Shape of Water. It was an instant hit, and the books and the subsequent TV series both had spectacular reception. Something like 80% of the television viewers in Italy watched the first episode of the last Montalbano series a couple years ago.

Camilleri grew up in Sicily and these books are a tribute to his hometown, Porto Empedocle. The town in the book is Vigata. After the huge success of the books and the TV series, Porto Empedocle changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata. There is a statue of Inspector Montalbano in the town square, and you can eat at the bar that is the model for Enzo’s in the books.

There are 28 books. The last one, Riccardino, just came out at the end of September. Camilleri wrote it over ten years before he died. He wanted to end the Montalbano saga on his own terms, so he wrote the last book while he still had his wits about him and still had a few more books to write. Camilleri died in July, 2019, at the age of 94.

There are 37 TV episodes. You can read about them at this Wikipedia link:
The main cast remained the same throughout the series (except for Montalbano’s girlfriend Livia) and they are all terrific. You can stream them on MHz. Worth the subscription to see them all.
Here are the books. Like all good series, it’s best to read them in order. They are all written in Italian, but the English translation is excellent.

The Shape of Water (2002)
The Terra-Cotta Dog (2002)
The Snack Thief (2003)
Voice of the Violin (2003)
The Excursion to Tindari (2005)
The Smell of the Night (2005)
Rounding the Mark (2006)
The Patience of the Spider (2007)
The Paper Moon (2008)
August Heat (2009)
The Wings of the Sphinx (2009)
The Track of Sand (2010)
The Potter’s Field (2011)
The Age of Doubt (2012)
The Dance of the Seagull (2013)
Treasure Hunt (2013)
Angelica’s Smile (2013)
Game of Mirrors (2015)
A Beam of Light (2015)
A Voice in the Night (2016)
A Nest of Vipers (2017)
The Pyramid of Mud (2018)
The Overnight Kidnapper (2019)
The Other End of the Line (2019)
The Safety Net (2020)
The Sicilian Method (2020)
The Cook of the Halcyon (2021)
Riccardino (2021)