Monthly Archives: March 2011

CBR III Week 10: A Certain Justice by PD James

One thing that happened this week was that I managed to slice open my thumb on my new chef's knife that Chandler gave me for my birthday (and that I refused to use for .58 years so it would always be beautiful and new) thereby christening it with my blood. It is ruined now–marred forever–so I will continue to use it to chop vegetables and do other awful, mundane things with its fancy sharpness.

One thing that did not happen this week was me writing 6 reviews. I don't have an excuse, but I do have a fourth review.

A certain justice

A Certain Justice is a murder mystery featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh, of New Scotland Yard, who has been around for longer than most of the people I know, and maybe that's why he's so competent. This time around, an extremely unpleasant piece of work named Venetia Aldridge (a defense attorney by trade) (and an apparent victim of Classy Naming) has been found dead in her office in Pawlet Court. First of all, do you know about the Courts? It is all very confusing to me, but a defense attorney is still a defense attorney (probably).

Anywhizbang, the murder looks like an inside-the-office job, but initially the strongest suspect is a young man whom Venetia (I KNOW that this isn't a made-up name, but every time I hear it I picture a gondola) defended. Garry Ashe had been accused of killing his aunt, with whom he had been having a creepy incestuous relationship. All incest is creepy, but not all of it involves photographing your prostitute aunt having sex with her johns.

For two novels in a row, PD has featured an incestuous relationship, and what is that about, please?

After Venetia defends Garry successfully, he seduces Venetia's daughter. Venetia obviously flies off the handle, since she suspects that he was guilty, but mostly because she dislikes how it will affect and reflect upon her. In addition to being sort of a terrible mother, Venetia is extremely ambitious and makes enemies of many of her co-workers in her quest to become Head of Pawlet Court. She is also having an affair with a married politician, because obviously.

The feminist that lives in my left ear was sort of unhappy to see a powerful woman in such an unpleasant light, but maybe wielding the kind of power Venetia does requires one to be…ungracious…at times, precisely because one is a woman. Aside from that, I really enjoyed this. It was so, so creepy in its depiction of Garry Ashe, who, if not a sociopath, was definitely deeply disturbed. Also, there's a nice bit of substance under all the plottyness: the novel is very much concerned with the limitations of the justice system in actually administering justice. Defense attorneys, especially, have a strange role to play: their asessment of their clients' guilt has almost nothing to do with the job they must do. Theoretically, they bear no responsibility for the future behavior of the people they get off, and yet, in practice, it's often difficult not to assign them some blame, especially when, like Venetia, they view the law as an intellectual exercise and not as the expression of our deep-seated need for justice. The practice of the law is so cerebral, but to seek justice is so instinctual–a matter at least as much of the heart as the head.

As with all of James's mysteries, the plot is intricate. The solution to the murders (there is a second one half-way through), in keeping with the theme, illustrates the difference between knowing something and being able to prove it. For example, I could still be in my pajamas in the afternoon, but can you prove it? No you cannot. 

This NYTimes review of the book is delightful.


51 Book Reviews (by author’s last name)

    Barrett, Andrea

Ship Fever

    Camilleri, Andrea

The Terracotta Dog

    Carey, Peter

Parrot and Olivier in America

    Carpentier, Alejo

The Kingdom of This World

    Donoghue, Emma


    Fitzgerald, Penelope

The Blue Flower

    French, Tana

In the Woods

Faithful Place

The Likeness

    Gessen, Masha

The Man Without A Face

    Gordon, Mary


    Horwitz, Tony

A Voyage Long and Strange

    Isherwood, Christopher

The Berlin Stories

    James, PD

Death in Holy Orders

A Certain Justice

The Murder Room

The Private Patient 

A Taste for Death

Devices and Desires

Cover Her Face

The Lighthouse

    Joyce, James


    Kaling, Mindy

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

    Krakauer, Jon

Under the Banner of Heaven

    Larsson, Stieg

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

    le Carre, John

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

    Maclean, Rory

Stalin’s Nose

    Mann, Charles



    Martin, George R R

A Game of Thrones

A Clash of Kings

A Storm of Swords

A Feast for Crows

A Dance With Dragons

    Mitchell, David

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

    Mueenuddin, Daniyal

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

    Peters, Elizabeth

Crocodile on the Sandbank

The Curse of the Pharaohs

The Mummy Case

Lion in the Valley

Deeds of the Disturber

The Last Camel Died at Noon     

    Pratchett, Terry

Discworld Series (Books 2,8,15,19)

    Simonson, Helen

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

    Smith, Dodie

I Capture the Castle

    Smith, Martin Cruz

Gorky Park

    Tey, Josephine

The Franchise Affair

Brat Farrar

The Daughter of Time

    Willis, Connie


    Wright, Lawrence

The Looming Tower

    Zafon, Carlos Ruiz

The Shadow of the Wind

Slings and Arrows

Slings and Arrows is such a good little comedy. When I first started watching it I was like "how did a satire about a Shakespearen company get a second season?" but then it turned out to be a Canadian show, and everything was explained. My favorite line is from the premier of the second season–the moment that I fell in love with this show for keeps–and is spoken in reference to a cremated theater director who's been replaced by his protégé, who can never quite get out from under the former's shadow: 

"Oliver Wells is dead! I poured him in the river and swans ate him."

And they did.

CBR III Week 9: A Feast for Crows by George R R Martin

Fest for crows

Since I've already reviewed the Song of Ice and Fire books that preceded this one, I'm not going to rehash all the things I said about the series in general. Instead I'm going to ponder whether it was a mistake to release this book or not. A Feast for Crows is, qualitatively, on par with Martin's other writing, but it's gotten some very middling reviews, because it only follows some of the characters we've grown to know and love (if memory serves, they are: Cersei, Jaime, Brienne of Tarth, Sansa, Arya, some Greyjoys, some Martells, and Samwell). Basically, Martin's manuscript got too long for publication and so it got split up into two volumes, by geography, A Feast for Crows being the first. This would've made sense if the two volumes had actually been published together, or within a year of each other, but instead, Martin took the second of these two volumes and expanded it (?) into a whole new fifth volume bla bla bla, which he's still working on. 

I suppose it made commercial sense to do this, since Martin is a relatively slow writer (not that there's anything wrong with that), and Feast is a nice sop to fans. In the end though, it feels like exactly that: a half-baked attempt to maintain reader loyalty that doesn't necessarily make sense in terms of telling the story. Where is Tyrion, guys? Tyrion is like 95% of the reason I'm reading these books. In addition to the cranky-making absence of a dwarf, the format sacrifices a lot of the dramatic irony that makes the series so delightful. If you happen to be making your way through the series, I would advise you to stop at A Storm of Swords, and wait for the next book in the series to come out before reading Feast.

Of the published volumes, I think the first and third are the most effective because they each contain events that are major game changers. They read like Greek plays: their tragedies are on that scale. A Feast for Crows doesn't do much more than build up momentum. 

Can I get a slow clap for the Arya storyline, though? She gets more emotionally complex with every chapter. Martin has made her transition into adulthood painful and fascinating, and I love that there's this potential that she'll grow up to be somewhat of a monster (like "sociopath", not like "Godzilla"). Talk about high stakes.

CBR III Week 8: In the Woods by Tana French


This book left me feeling, I don't know, maybe bereft is the word? Having read Faithful Place and Even Stevens's review of In the Woods, I knew I wasn't going to have a run-of-the-mill mystery on my hands, and In the Woods did not disappoint. The story has lingered in my head even weeks after I finished reading it.

As I've written before, one of the reasons I find mysteries so lovely and fun to read is because much of the time, the character I'm most attached to is fundamentally separate from the central drama of the story. Even when the detective or whatever is in danger, you sort of know that for the story to continue he or she needs to be ok, right? At the end of the story there's usually a putting-everything-in-its-placeness that makes me feel like a little kid picking up my toys at the end of an afternoon of play. French takes our assumptions of safety and just totally crushes them. To great effect! To survive is not necessarily to be alright and to look for answers is not necessarily to find them.

Let me tell you what the book is about, before I continue to make vague, mysterious pronouncements: a young girl's body is found at an archeological site outside the village of Knocknaree, which itself is a detached suburb of Dublin built in the seventies in some sort of developers-gone-wild frenzy. Two detectives from Dublin's elite murder squad are assigned to the case: Cassie Maddox (a fantastically realized female character, can I just mention that? no wonder she's the star of French's second novel) and Rob Ryan. As it turns out, Ryan himself grew up in Knocknaree, and was probably the only survivor of three children who went missing there in the eighties. He was known as Adam Ryan then, and after his two friends disappeared (never to be seen again), he was found clinging to a tree in the woods outside Knocknaree, his shoes soaked in blood and his memory wiped utterly clean of whatever horror he may have witnessed. Rob keeps his past a secret, even when he becomes involved in the investigation of the newer murder. He's drawn to the new case (inevitably, one feels) and for the first time in his life, he is forced to come to terms with how his childhood experience shaped him.

One thing I like to do when I really enjoy a book is to go on Amazon and read people's reviews of it, so I can feel vindication and contempt for other readers, in turn, depending on whether they agree with me or not. Obviously! So without going into details that will spoil this book for you, I will say that there's controversy all up in the ratings, but that's because French doesn't treat her characters like toys. Like any really good writer, she's willing to make her characters face the one un-faceable thing in their lives (and isn't that why we read good books?); she doesn't seem content with low stakes or facile endings.

My one little quibble: at times, this book was maybe a little over-written, especially when compared to Faithful Place. French is such a sensuous writer that it's probably inevitable that her prose occasionally gets a little overwrought. It's interesting to see how French is evolving, and I for one am looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

I got so angry I had to lay down.

Scene: A small room in the process of being redecorated, due to excessive boredom on the part of its owner.

Participants: One woman, one dog (hers). Dog is excitable, barks at random intervals for no discernible reason, except possibly malice. The woman is easily startled.

Result: One dropped, broken picture frame.

Ironic: Picture is of dog. 

Progress report: I am almost done with The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

CBR III Week 7: Death in Holy Orders by PD James

Lately, I sit down to write things and before I can put a single word down, I look to my left and see my new nail polish and decide to paint all my nails jade green, because why not? I love jade green!

Anyway, my goal is to post a review every day this week and clear my backlog of books I've been meaning to write about.

Death in holy orders

I read PD James’s Death in Holy Orders so many weeks ago that it was still snowing then or something, probably. It’s a mystery, or did you get that from the d-word in the title? Specifically, it’s a mystery set in a remote Anglican theological college called St. Anselm’s. When I say remote, what I mean is that this place is like ten years from falling into the sea off East Anglia and when that happens exactly no one will notice. Adam Dalgliesh, James’s great poet/detective, visits St. Anselm’s one weekend to unofficially look into the mysterious death of one of the ordinands, at the request of his wealthy father. Dalgliesh’s weekend visit throws him together with a number of characters that are both temporary and permanent fixtures at the college, several of whom may have had motives for murder. Shortly after Dalgliesh’s arrival, another murder occurs, and Scotland Yard launches an official investigation into the people at St. Anselm’s.

There’s something so workmanlike about PD James’s writing. I can’t call to mind many writers who are quite so clear or self-effacing; she writes with so little ego. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I prefer this kind of writing to something highly stylized—there’s a wonderfully honest plainness to it: an understandability and accessibility that are possible, I think, only when a writer has great confidence in herself and her skills. So quietly authoritative is her voice that it allows her to insert any number of unlikely coincidences and subplots into the story without stretching believability. So, Adam Dalgliesh spent several summers in the seminary as a boy. So, one of the characters just happened to write down the thing that gets her killed in a diary (not a spoiler, actually!). Well, of course. In James’s hands it all seems sort of inevitable.

This is very much in the tradition of a British pre-war country house mystery, in that there’s a limited number of suspects, and the murderer must be found among them. It’s an interesting update on that concept actually, as it is profoundly concerned with elitism and tradition, and the cultural upending England has undergone since WWII, which has endangered both, for better and worse. 

James had me right up to the very end. I had only one real problem with this book, but it’s a bit of a doozy. Without giving anything away, I had a hard time buying the murderer’s motivations for what he had done. I’ve recently finished another of James’s books (A Certain Justice), and in both the motive for murder is quite similar, and the murderers are characters that remain rather hazy to us, but the difference in believability is enormous. In the case of Death in Holy Orders, it feels as if, at the end, James had to fit the character to the plot, rather than the plot to the characters, which gives the whole story an unfortunate mechanical quality: it fails to convince us that it’s more than a cleverly constructed puzzle, and so lacks the power to move us.