Darcy Scott, here. Maybe twice a year I share some thoughts on the books I’ve been reading and, it being August and thus the month my husband and I drop all semblance of responsibility and head off for a month of sailing (which this year includes the decided oddness of masked trips to the grocery and dinghy-distanced cocktail parties), I thought it a good time to dip back into this. My summer reads tend to be escapist fiction, with a few exceptions here and there—books I’ve spent months gathering and hoarding to savor when I’d have the time to truly relax.
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
Thus begins Shantarum—a sprawling, 900 page tome and first novel by Aussie writer, Gregory David Roberts. (Its sequel, The Mountain Shadow, is just as massive and delightfully awaits in my TBR pile.) This was an unusual choice for me. Set amid contemporary Bombay’s “hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries,” the story is narrated by the character Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees a maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear. It’s a mesmerizing story that mirrors Roberts’s own—a guy who, while on the lam and despite very minimal medical training, established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers in the heart of Bombay’s poorest slum, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia where he was ultimately recruited by a group of mujahedeen guerrillas. Clever writing, intriguing plot twists, a touch of romance, and I was totally hooked.
I discovered the writing of Liz Moore a few months back, as well, and boy, what a find! Both Heft (the story of an obese man and his tenuous connection to the world outside the NYC brownstone he’s refused to leave for decades) and The Unseen World offer unusual premises and profound story arcs that held me rapt—the second a deep, slow burn of a novel about the world of artificial intelligence as told through the relationship between a brilliant computer scientist with a secret and his even more brilliant and quirky young daughter. But it was Moore’s latest, the newly released thriller Long Bright River—a harrowing, hard-bitten tale about a female cop/single mom trying to save her troubled sister from the ravages of opioid addiction—that completely blew me away. Prepare yourself for a story that is at once deeply emotional but with all the taught edginess of Tana French and Dennis Lehane—an often harrowing read about the heartbreak of addiction and the unbreakable bond between siblings.
Right now I’m maybe halfway through The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie—the first in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia DeLuce mystery series (and a winner of the Agatha, Arthur Ellis, Dilys, and Debut Dagger Awards), about a precocious 11-year-old girl rather disturbingly fixated on poisons who stumbles on a body in the back garden of the sprawling family manse in Ye Olde England. This kind of novel is a departure for me, I have to say—straddling the line as it does between adult and young adult fiction (perhaps the first such book I’ve read since John Green’s fabulous The Fault in Our Stars)—its plot making no bones about favoring the superior cognitive skills of young, prepubescent girls. It’s the kind of book designed for rainy afternoons curled in an overstuffed chair with a cuppa by your side, fuzzy blanket tucked about you as a slow fire sizzles in the grate. Full of dry British humor, it’s a novel the Chicago Sun Times calls “Wonderfully entertaining…sure to be one of the most loved mysteries of the year…[Flavia is] a delightlful, intrepid, acid-tongued new heroine.” And at last count there were another nine books in the series to be enjoyed. Oh goody.
Another unusual choice for me this time around was Hermit: The Mysterious Life of Jim Whyte, by Jeffrey H. Ryan. Whyte, a stranger to the slate mining town of Monson, Maine, arrived in 1895 with sacks of money, a pile of secrets, and a fierce desire to keep to himself. Almost 130 years later, people still don’t know what to make of him, though strange stories of spies, illicit crime and buried treasure at the edge of the wilderness still abound, drawing even the FBI in for a look-see. Based on a true story, Hermit follows one man’s quest to discover all he can about Whyte’s secret life. As a reader, I found it a little slow going at times and a bit of a tease at others, but it was nonetheless intriguing and well worth the read.
Now onto my TBR pile, which has much to offer this time around, including a few more mystery writers who are new to me. At the top of the list is John Galligan, a top-notch writer whose Bad Axe County (reluctant female sheriff searches for a missing girl, battles local drug dealers, and seeks the truth about the death of her parents some twenty years before) drew me in with its great plot, nonstop action, and tasty dialogue. Dead Man Dancing, the second in the series, recently found its way to my mailbox and is next on my list. Can’t wait to tuck into this one. I should mention that Galligan is also the author of an interesting-looking five-book series of fly-fishing mysteries (The Wind Knot, The Clinch Knot, The Blood Knot, etc.), that I’ve yet to dip into.
Also in the TBR is the much lauded The Nickel Boys, the sequel to Colson Whitehead’s 2017 Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad. This one is a powerhouse of a story about the Jim Crow south, inspired by the cruel realities of an actual reform school that operated in Florida for 111 years, warping the lives of thousands of children. It’s a devastating story made all the more so by the author’s spare, eloquent prose.
Finally, there’s Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light—the third and final installment in her excellent, strangely empathetic trilogy about the life of the cruel and enigmatic Thomas Cromwell—a blacksmith’s son from Putney who claws his way to the heights of power and into Henry the Eighth’s heart, eventually becoming the infamous figure long-hated by generations of red-blooded Brits. The first two books in Mantel’s series—Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were both awarded the Man Booker Prize, among others, and in this writer’s humble opinion, deservedly so.
Darcy Scott (Winner, 2019 National Indie Excellence Award; Best Mystery, 2013 Indie Book Awards; Silver Award, 2013 Readers Favorite Book Awards; Bronze Prize, 2013 IPPY Awards) is a live-aboard sailor and experienced ocean cruiser with more than 20,000 blue water miles under her belt. For all her wandering, her summer home and favorite cruising grounds remain along the coast of Maine—the history and rugged beauty of its sparsely populated out-islands serving as inspiration for much of her fiction, including her popular Maine-based Island Mystery Series. Her debut novel, Hunter Huntress, was published in Britain in 2010.
Is there anything more delightful than looking at one’s TBR pile and savoring the endless possibilities contained therein?
Thanks for all the suggestions. I’m always looking for recommendations for new authors. You will enjoy the other Flavia stories. I found her by accident and enthusiastically dove into the series. The cruel behavior toward Flavia by her sisters may seem over the top, but that is often the way of sisters. Although my sisters and I get along very well, now, it was hell on earth for many years.
Oh Darcy! That was great. Just what I needed to jumpstart a winter reading list. And thanks for your taking the time to swiftly and delightfully critique each one. You feel like such a trusts source. Thx!