Monday, September 28, 2009

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Setting: England, 1348
Protagonist: Camelot
Rating: 4.8
(Audiobook narrated by Maxwell Caulfield)

As the black plague sweeps across Medieval England, a band of travelers thrown together by circumstance sets out toward the north, trying to escape the pestilence. They do escape the plague, but not death, as they are killed, one by one. But by whom – or what?

This is a mystery wrapped in the supernatural. The travelers love to tell stories, especially of witches, vampires and werewolves – and at one point believe they are being hunted by a wolf. What they don’t tell are their own stories – each person carries a secret, hence the “liars” of the novel’s title. Led (and narrated) by Camelot, an old, hideously scarred peddler of religious relics, the band includes a Venetian musician and his apprentice, an albino child who reads runes, a magician who travels with a merbaby (not quite grown mermaid), a young couple expecting their first child, a midwife and healer, and a man who claims to be half-swan, and has a wing in place of one arm.

This is a book to be savored; it is not a light read, by any means. The constant rain, the travelers’ troubles and the superstitions of the era weigh the novel down. It is, however, educational – the author’s notes at the end give you an idea of the research done. And it does keep you engrossed to the very end, where one last twist awaits.

The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill

Protagonist: Dr. Siri Paiboun
Setting: People's Democratic Republic of Laos, 1976
Rating: 5.0

Dr. Siri is set to retire, should retire, deserves retirement. At 72, he’s given years of service to the Communist cause. But his superiors need a national coroner – “from each according to ability, to each according to need,” a top government official lectures Siri – and so the doctor reluctantly becomes a coroner, learning from dusty books. Well, it turns out Siri has a knack for this. First, a government official’s wife is brought to his morgue, ostensibly a natural death, but Siri suspects not. Then two Vietnamese men are found drowned, possibly tortured, a finding that could endanger international relations. And Siri is flown to a northern army base in the jungle where commanders have mysteriously been dying.

The first in this series has plenty to keep you riveted. But what’s really special about this book is the witty writing and richly drawn characters. Oh, and the good doctor also sees dead people – those who come to him in his morgue also come to him in visions.

Every once in a while comes a book that surprises you because it is so unlike anything else in the genre you've read -- The Coroner's Lunch is that book. The rest in the series (which you can be sure I'll be reading) are:

Thirty-Three Teeth
Disco For the Departed
Anarchy and Old Dogs
Curse of the Pogo Stick
The Merry Misogynist

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Protagonist: Det. Simon Ziele
Setting: New York City and upstate Dobson, 1905
Rating: 3.7

In the Shadow of Gotham won St. Martin’s Minotaur First Crime Novel Award last year, and comes with great promise: an atmospheric novel set just after the turn of the century, when psychology was beginning to delve into the criminal mind.

Amid all this, we meet Ziele, who has transferred to a small upstate town from New York City after his fiancée dies in the General Slocum ferry disaster. But this quiet existence is not to last. A young woman is brutally murdered and the crime sends him back to the city to investigate. There, a noted Columbia University criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, believes that a patient he has been treating, Michael Fromley, is behind the murder. But Fromley has disappeared. So Ziele, with the help of Sinclair and those in his office, sets out to find Fromley, who always seems to be two steps ahead of them – as if he had inside knowledge of the investigation itself.

The book gets high marks for atmosphere and historical detail – I felt I was right there with the characters. And the characters are very engaging, especially Ziele, who despite his tragedy is not mired in melancholy. But when it came to the plot itself, which is critical in a mystery, of course, the book fell short. Much of the time is spent chasing shadows around Gotham. There is a nice twist in the story, but it comes too soon in the book, and the rest of the story drags after that. The ending, when it comes, is anticlimatic.

Yet given all that, I’m still curious about Pintoff’s next book (she reportedly has at least two more planned in the series). I like the characters and the time period, and am interested in seeing what happens next -- both to the characters and to Pintoff, as a writer. The series has promise.