I think I came across the recommendation for Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews in one of those book lists promoting Russian-themed books, pre-Olympics. And it does not disappoint in its delivery of the Russian experience.
Russian intelligence officer Dominika Egorova, a brilliant, fiery, and gorgeous synesthete, has been trained as the ‘honey trap’ to bait American CIA agent Nate Nash, the handler for a Russian mole. Oh yes, all the double crosses, intrigue, murder, and sex of a spy novel. I have a soft spot in my heart for authors who create such bold, female main characters who embody the lethal combination of strength and weakness that makes them dangerous to cross and even to love. Reading about Dominika’s transformation from a classically trained Russian ballerina and patriot into a killing machine is reason enough to pick up the novel. This is also the first time I’ve encountered a synesthete in literature, and as one who has always been curious as to how it manifests itself in people, Matthews’s use of it in an intelligence context was clever.
Not to say the book was perfect. It could easily have been 100 pages shorter. I am actually surprised how some of the chapters didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. The length drags down the momentum of the book and almost lost me halfway through. Also, the American agent Nate is severely underdeveloped, particularly when partnered with as rich a character as Dominika. She renders him to a state of literary cardboardness–one-dimensional and flat.
An interestingly unique feature of this spy novel is that it features recipes of the dishes the characters eat, at the end of each chapter. Which made me immediately hungry and also curious about some of the Russian dishes I read about. Although I’m not quite sure what impact was supposed to have on the reader (maybe touching on another of the reader’s senses–a stretch of a connection to the synesthete?), I will say I’ve dogeared some of the dishes to try, particularly on a freezing cold, snowy day. In my fur hat. With a shot of vodka. Join me?
I won’t lie; when I first heard of Keigo Higashino, a great deal of my interest was piqued due to the fact that the English translation of The Devotion of Suspect X, his mystery novel, was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Novel. While Scandi thrillers have been taking the literary world by storm ever since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and not to say I haven’t very much enjoyed them), sometimes one needs a little break from all the snow and cold and more snow. Also, I’m a bit ashamed to say, I had never read a Japanese mystery before.
Detective Kusanagi is the conduit by which we meet “Detective Galileo,” Higashino’s very own Sherlock Holmes–a prominent physicist at Teito University, who occasionally acts as a consultant on Kusunagi’s cases. Galileo (his nickname) and his scientific and logic-based brand of crime solving contrasts quite nicely with Kusanagi’s old fashioned pavement pounding, particularly as the two are not so fond of each other as they used to be in their old college days.
However, for me, the main attraction of this book is the unfamiliar Japanese cultural customs. It is the rigid formality ingrained in every social interaction–a new wrinkle in the police / suspect / witness relationship, quite different from anything I’ve read before. It is the societal construct that dictates what is spoken and shared with strangers (hardly anything) and what is implied by those silences. It is how female assistant detective Kaoru Utsumi is treated compared to her male counterparts.
The two books follow two different mysteries of very different sorts and what keeps me coming back to Higashino’s mysteries is the thought and the effort put into building and presenting a refreshing and new mystery story each time. A mystery that is both substantial and fulfilling when you reach the end. It’s at least worth picking up the first in the series and looking forward to what’s next from Higashino.
One of my favorite books is a little fellow from 1947–Tales from Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, selected tales told for young people . . . from the Heritage Illustrated Bookshelf. It won’t cause any bidding wars. It’s a reprint, for one. And in its former life it took to sunbathing, allowing the slip case and spine to fade. But the contents! Housed within the cover of this book are full color illustrations from Arthur Szyk–the Polish-born illustrator Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as “a one-man army” against Fascism.
As for the tales themselves, well, I think they’re best described in Charles Cowden Clarke’s own words:
To My Young Readers
I HAVE endeavoured to put these Tales, written by one of the finest poets that ever lived, into modern language and into as easy prose as I could, without at the same time destroying the poetical descriptions and strong natural expressions of the author. My object in presenting them in this new form was, first, that you might become wise and good by the example of the sweet and kind creatures you will find described in them; secondly, that you might derive improvement by the beautiful writing (for I have been careful to use the language of Chaucer whenever I thought it not too antiquated for modern and young readers); and, lastly, I hoped to excite in you an ambition to read these same stories in their original poetical dress when you shall have become so far acquainted with your own language as to understand, without much difficulty, the old and now almost forgotten terms.
To the adult reader
THE adult reader (should I be honoured with such), who can scarcely fail to discern an abrupt stiffness in the construction of the sentences in the following Tales, will bear in mind the many complicated difficulties I have had to contend with in retaining, as much as possible, Chaucer’s antique quaintness and distinctive character; in avoiding his repetitions, and yet in incorporating every nervous expression which constitutes the great charm of his graphic descriptions.
The task I proposed to myself was to render my translations literal with the original, to preserve their antique fashion, and withal to give them a sufficiently modern air to interest the young reader. I was to be at one and the same time “modernly antique,” prosaically poetic, and comprehensively concise. He only will appreciate my frequent perplexities who shall attempt the same task—observing the same restrictions.
Needless to say, if you get the chance to add it to your collection, I highly recommend. Here’s just a peek at what you’re missing . . .
The year, thus far, as been a tad bit crazy. Far too much work, in far too little time. So, I set out to find a book that I could read in brief, stolen moments–one that would be entertaining, and take me away for a bit. I came away with Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James.
In case you’re wondering, yes, that Pemberley.
The novel takes place in October, 1803–six years after the close of Pride and Prejudice. As you might imagine, Elizabeth and Darcy have built a happy marriage at Pemberley; Jane and Bingley live nearby. All is well . . . until the eve of the autumn ball when Lydia Wickham shows up all a dither, exclaiming (shrilly, no doubt) that Wickham has been murdered. And so the intrigue begins.
First of all, let me just say: I tend to be against books that copy the storyline/characters of another. I opted to read this one because 1) desperate times call for desperate measures; and 2) it was P.D. James. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.
It’s evident from the start that this work is a pastiche of Austen’s. In other words, it doesn’t mock its predecessor–it doesn’t claim the inspiration as its own. Rather, it offers respect where respect is due. Before the Prologue ever begins, James pays tribute to Jane Austen. She continues by setting the stage, summarizing the goings on that occur within the pages of Pride and Prejudice. And she continues with a writing style that echoes Austen.
So, if you’ve not yet read Death Comes to Pemberley–if you’re a fan of period pieces and you love a good, light mystery (i.e. not grisly)–I recommend you give it a try.