Friday, August 22, 2008

Feint of Art, by Hailey Lind

This summer I’ve indulged myself by trying out several new mystery writers and series. Some stories I have enjoyed, while others were too much of a stretch to be believable, or just badly written. But the popularity of the amateur detective is greatly evident when you stroll through the mystery section of the bookstore, and see series after series involving shopkeepers and writers and store owners and party planners, all of whom suddenly blossom into private investigators, with the typical motivation of helping out a friend combined with personal nosiness. (I reflected briefly on this phenomenon when I reviewed three such novels on Leaf and Frame.) Creating a believable scenerio wherein a (typically) self-employed young professional discovers private-eye talents and uses them convincingly, is difficult, I believe. When in real life can a florist or coffeeshop owner succeed where a police detective can’t? In a market burgeoning with “same formula/new setting” mystery series, creating a fun, unique character who finds a legitimate reason to sleuth around is the author’s first and most challenging imperative. Some of those I have read over the summer succeeded in that goal, while others did not.

In Feint of Art, Hailey Lind did a decent job of giving her detective a convincing cause and motivation for tracking down some missing persons together with missing works of art. As a reformed art forger turned legitimate businesswoman, Annie Kincaid’s background is original and gives her a slight edge in a case involving the “art underworld,” so to speak. Other than that, Annie is a formula character with the prerequisite traits of inquisitiveness, tenacity, money troubles, fashion obstacles, and a suffering love life. (Seriously, all the heroines that I have encountered in this type of mystery novel have these same characteristics.) But Annie’s particular incarnation is enjoyable enough, and the plot’s rising action involving deception, murder, art renovation and flirtation, was interesting and swift enough to keep me turning the pages.

Feint of Art is one of the better examples of the amateur detective subgenre, and it was nice indulging in a bit of candy reading this month. It nowhere reaches the cleverness of Agatha Christie nor the witty depth of Dorothy Sayers; but readers who like modern mystery writers will enjoy this light entertainment.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle

I posted this on my own blog a while back but completely forgot to post my review of the book here during July. Very sorry about that.

This book is a delight from beginning to end. The subject matter, the writing style, the local characterizations -- from the first page to the last, I was drawn in and fascinated by life in Provence. Mayle is a gifted writer and has a talent for selecting just the right moment and describing it in perfect detail. As a result, there are gems to be found on every page and a laugh in just about every paragraph.

The premise of the book is the many experiences of the first year that the author (or narrator, depending on how the reader chooses to distinguish the two) and his wife have after moving to Provence. They buy an old French house -- apparently the one in the picture below -- and then set themselves to the task of remodeling it and assimilating into Provençal life. As expected, there are all kinds of new adventures along the way, from getting accumstomed to the local way of measuring time to getting used to the vast changes in weather, from learning the variances of the French language in Provence to braving the many guests who invite themselves down. The house that is supposed to be remodeled within a matter of a month or two doesn't get completed until December, and then only because the author and his wife lure the builders into finishing the job by throwing a cocktail party and inviting them and their wives. (The ploy is quite brilliant actually: no self-respecting workman from Provence would let his wife see that his work is only half-finished.) But the year and the story moves very quickly, and by the time the reader reaches December, it's a little disappointing to know that it will all be over soon.

Although the remodeling of the house is the central element of the plot, Mayle doesn't focus exclusively on the challenges of getting contractors to finish a job in a timely manner, which is just as well since that seems to be a universal and not terribly original problem. While their house is being torn apart and rebuilt, he and his wife take the time to experience the local culture and get to know the part of Provence in which they are living. There is hiking to do, truffles to hunt, (lots of) wine to drink, cafes to enjoy, and even a goat race to watch. The book was originally published in 1989, so I suspect that no matter how "provincial" Provence might have remained, much of what Mayle describes is now obsolete, but it's fun to read about anyway. For myself, I have to admit that I hope the cafe bathrooms have improved and that many of the cafes now take credit cards (which I would assume they do, or at least some of them). But I enjoyed Mayle's take on everything and his willingness to allow Provence to reveal itself to him and to accept Provence as it is and not as he thought it would, or should, be.

To me, the best part of the book has to be Mayle's descriptions of the people encountered along the way. From the trigger-happy neighbor Massot to the industrious tenant Faustin and his wife Henriette to the delightfully philosophical electrician Menicucci, Mayle breathes life into each of these characters and shows the reader how they make up the Provence that he has learned to love. My personal favorite, though, might be Mayle's description of the hapless English friend Bennett who accidentally caught the backseat of his rented convertible on fire (while driving down the autoroute, no less) and then put the fire out by urinating on it. (He did pull over to perform that task.) I laughed for about three days when I read this.

Two thumbs up for A Year in Provence and a big recommendation. Mayle's wit is wonderfully dry and his sense of humor keeps the reader interested. I realize that this one isn't exactly fresh off the printing presses, but the writing style is fresh enough to keep it relevant and enjoyable for some time.

Year of publication: 1989
Number of pages: 207

Cross-posted to Dwell in Possibility.