Aurora: David Koepp

Since COVID, I have developed a taste for The-End-of-Civilization-as-We-Know-It books, and that brings me to David Koepp’s novel, Aurora. The novel is set post-COVID, and it’s a world in which some people are solidly prepared for the next disaster (or so they think), but the majority are focused on surviving day-to-day. The novel opens with almost breath-taking speed when scientists discover that a CME (coronal mass ejection) will take out most of the world’s power grids within hours. This leaves the world, and for the purposes of this story, North America, without electricity. Ok, so we have all ridden out a power outage, but how would we survive if that power outage extended to 6 months? A year? It wouldn’t be pretty.

The novel follows two storylines: billionaire Thom Banning is totally prepared for the next apocalypse–so much so that when he gets the news of the impending Black Sky Event, he’s excited. He’s an obsessive control freak, and the prospect of a societal meltdown kicks his plan into gear. He hustles his pissed-off wife, 2 children and a carefully selected number of staff to his compound in Utah. The compound is a renovated government nuclear missile underground silo. Thom bought this for a pittance and then ploughed millions into his prepper project. Some of those millions are locked in the underground bunker. It’s a entire compound with armed guards and a guard house. There’s a:

six thousand-square-foot modernist chateau nestled into the artificial hillside beside the gatehouse. It was designed to shelter a single family, Thom’s family, for as long as things stayed somewhat docile out in the world at large. But the real masterpiece, for when the shit really hit the fan, was all underground, inside the converted silo, which was now fourteen floors of scrupulously conceived subterranean living space.

The second storyline follows Thom’s sister Aubrey who lives in Illinois with her teenage stepson, Scott, the remnant of an ugly marriage to Rusty–a low-life whose addictions took over his life, and his marriage. Thom’s prepper plans included whipping Aubrey into readiness, but when the lights go out, Aubrey has a total of 11 cans of beans in the basement. …

We see the wealthy hit the road on the way to their mountain hideouts while those in the suburbs scramble for food, find strength in numbers and show great ingenuity. Meanwhile, the slums get slummier, and crime spills from the have-nots with alarming alacrity.

David Koepp is a screenwriter and it shows here in this remarkably visual page-turner. I was not surprised to read that there’s a film version in the works. For the first 9/10 of the book, I thought this would be one of my reads of the year, but in spite of a fantastic start and some highly dramatic scenes right towards the end, for this reader, the book finished with a fizzle. That said, it’s a perfect cinematic ending. We hear about social unrest across America, but the action stays focused on Thom and Aubrey. Thom, in his “Fuhrerbunker” discovers the hard way that you can plan for every scenario, but the vagaries of human nature are impossible to control. I had to laugh at the ways his meticulously devised plan melted down almost immediately. Hilarious.

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Mr Wortle’s School: Anthony Trollope (1880)

Anthony Trollope likes to present his readers with moral dilemmas, and Mr.Wortle’s School is no exception. A case of bigamy raises moral questions for the characters, but interestingly, the two people who are in the bigamous marriage, have settled all moral questions to their satisfaction. Their decisions, however, send shock waves through the small, quiet village community in which they live. Here’s the plot: Dr Wortle, who is a Reverend, runs an extremely successful school for boys. Wortle, the Rector of Bowick, is a strong-willed man who knows his own mind and has quarreled with many people in the past. Some people think he shouldn’t be running a school at all, and others think that the 200 pounds a year he charges for each of the 30 boys under his care, is not enough:

It may be said of him that he knew his own [mind] so well as to justify him in repudiating counsel from others. There are very different ideas of what “a fortune” may be supposed to consist. It will not be necessary to give Dr. Wortle’s exact idea. No doubt it changed with him, increasing as his money increased. But he was supposed to be a comfortable man. He paid ready money and high prices. He liked that people under him should thrive,—and he liked them to know that they throve by his means. He liked to be master, and always was. He was just, and liked his justice to be recognised. He was generous also, and liked that, too, to be known. He kept a carriage for his wife, who had been the daughter of a poor clergyman at Windsor, and was proud to see her as well dressed as the wife of any county squire. But he was a domineering husband. As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant. His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so. They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.

Dr Wortle’s life can be seen as a series of battles: his employment at Eton, his Bishop, the parents of his pupils; he could “bear censure from no human being.” The latest battle involves the Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup, an unpleasant woman, whose son became ill with influenza while attending Wortle’s school. Mrs Staniloup, who already expected a discount from the school, is outraged by the bills for her son’s care. Following this incident, she withdrew her son from the school and became Dr Wortle’s mortal enemy.

In his exhaustive efforts to run the school, Wortle decides to employ a married man as a resident assistant-master and his wife as matron. In this small, gossipy community, many discuss Dr. Wortle’s search for the perfect employees and think he has set himself an impossible quest: what gentleman employed as an assistant head-master would want his wife to work??? But things always seem to go Wortle’s way and he employs The Peacockes who recently returned from America. Mr Peacocke already carries a slight taint– After all, he left a brilliant career at Oxford to seek his fortune in America. That decision alone makes the man slightly suspect. Further, Mr. Peacocke stresses that he will perform no clerical duties for Wortle, but after a short passage of time, he backs off from that decision and “preached a sermon.”

There’s a bit of a mystery about the Peacockes. They refuse to socialise, and the truth is that they harbour a dark secret. Mrs Peacocke’s first marriage was to Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy, a man from an affluent family, ruined by the civil war, who then, along with his brother, turned to a life of crime. He abandoned his wife in poverty, and she later heard he was dead. Peacocke confirmed the fact; they were married and then her first husband showed up very much alive. Then he disappeared again and so the Peacockes fled to England. Peacocke reasoned that he could not abandon his wife and so they chose to stay in a bigamous marriage.

Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting;—but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption,—he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin,—that he and she had continued in one great falsehood,—is manifest enough. 

Peacocke has just decided to tell Dr Wortle the whole story when Robert Lefroy, the ne-er-do well brother- in-law to Mrs. Peacocke, turns up, claiming to bring “tidings” and demanding money.

The novel’s structure is interesting. The bigamous couple are not torn with moral quandary; they made their peace with their moral decisions long ago, but soon the entire community is buzzing with the salacious news of the Peacockes. Everyone expects Dr. Wortle to kick the Peacockes to the curb, but he advises Peacocke to go to America and ascertain whether or not Ferdinand Lefroy is really dead. And in the meantime, Wortle insists that Mrs. Peacocke should remain at the residence under his protection.

Dr Wortle’s decision whether or not to support the Peacockes becomes a moral battleground, so Wortle is the hero here. Wortle faces his own ruin in the face of the Peacocke debacle. One subplot is a growing romance involving Wortle’s daughter, a romance that may very well be ruined by the Peacocke scandal. Another subplot follows Peacocke into the wilds of America. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the scandal involving the Peacockes has become ammunition for Wortle’s enemies, and Mrs Stantiloup wastes no time as she tries to engineer the collapse of the school. Throughout the story, Wortle listens to (does not necessarily take) the advice of one man–another clergyman, Mr. Puddicombe. Dr Wortle’s School examines the idea of personal morality superseding religious doctrine and law. There are a few America bashing sections (“Perhaps they don’t care about those things over there as we do here,”) which are quite funny. Dr Wortle’s School is one of Trollope’s Dramatic Novels.

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Grown Ups: Marie Aubert

The Holiday with the Extended Family … yes for some people it’s a thing, and for the really masochistic family, they may actually own a holiday home and (insanely) plan time together. That’s the scenario in Norwegian author, Marie Aubert’s novel, Grown Ups.

It’s the family matriarch’s 65th birthday, and daughters Ida and Marie plan a celebration at the family owned country cabin. Ida is a 40 year old, single architect. Marie is married to Kristoffer; it’s a second marriage, and Olea, his daughter with his first wife (the marriage that didn’t work out), is somewhat resentfully in tow. Ida, who has had a string of bad relationships (and I’m using the word ‘relationships’ here loosely) has decided that life is passing her by. She made the decision to have her eggs frozen, and she plans to deliver the big news sometime during the holiday. But her sister Marie, who has had innumerable miscarriages, has big news of her own.

Grown Ups, a bitter tale of sibling rivalry, is touted as funny. If it was funny, then the humour was lost on me. Over the course of this short novel, moments in Ida’s life are illuminated with bitterness as Marie, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, seem to always manage to upstage Ida’s big moments. In Ida’s mind, Marie has everything–the better life, a stepchild, a man, and the lion’s share of her mother’s concern. All the things that somehow pass Ida by seem easy for Marie to achieve, and the holiday, in this small enclosed space, brings out the worst in Ida. To Ida, everyone’s else’s life seems dynamic and better than hers, other lives are in a state of flux while her life stays the same: empty.

I can’t think about myself as ending up one way or another, as if everything’s over and done with, nothing is over and done with, you have to tell yourself that the best if yet to come, but at times I think that’s how Stein and Martha and Kristoffer see me. They don’t know anything, I think to myself, I’ve got a plan, I’ve got a secret. I make up my mind to tell Martha now, not to wait until this evening, I can tell her now, I’m going to freeze my eggs in Sweden, she’ll look at me wide-eyed and say wow.

Of course, it’s easy to see that Marie has struggles of her own: serious health issues, a stepdaughter who resents her, and a husband who is not a happy camper.

One of the most interesting characters here is Stein, the mother’s boyfriend. As an outsider, he pays attention to behaviours that the others are so used to, they mostly ignore. The fact that even the mother has a boyfriend, seems to add to Ida’s feelings of inadequacy, so when Ida sees the chinks in Marie’s seemingly picture perfect life, she goes for the jugular. Ida and Marie are locked in childhood rivalry, and it’s rather sad to think that perhaps we never get beyond our childhood selves. I liked Grown Ups in spite of the fact that for this reader, the book is a bit of a downer. Ida has a lot to be proud of, but she’s mired in comparisons to her workmates, and even worse, her sister.

Review copy

Translated by Rosie Hedger

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Within a Budding Grove: Proust

I mentioned in my last Proust post the Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition. (Special thanks to Patrick Alexander, the author of the incredibly helpful Swann’s WayMarcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past.) Given that Monty P made a skit on this topic, it’s not a difficult guess to say it’s a gargantuan task to summarize Proust. Many books have been written analyzing Proust, summarizing Proust, and then all the PhDs… so here I am writing a blog post on Book II: Within a Budding Grove. For this reader, Book II is about Youth. Yes, there you have it. I may be wrong, I may be right, but I am keeping it simple. An alternate title of this book is: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, so perhaps I am right about Youth as a theme.

In Swann’s Way, we read a lot about the narrator’s childhood: his interests, his health, his relatives, his holidays etc. Within a Budding Grove Marcel is older, and discovers sex (thanks to his friend, Bloch and brothels). Indeed Marcel’s interest in the opposite sex seems to dominate here, but again, it’s youth pushing the narrative.

Time has moved on since the first volume, yes Marcel is no longer a child, and little Gilberte, the daughter of Monsieur and Madame Swann has also grown up. Marcel visits the home of the Swanns often and is in love with Gilberte, but their relationship only goes so far and eventually cools.

The novel oozes snobbery, sometimes consciously as when portraying the intricate snobbery of the bourgeoise, but sometimes unconsciously too. Marcel goes on holiday to Balbec with his grandmother, and snobbery rages within the hotel. No doubt this is due to the fact that anyone can book and pay for a room; it’s not as exclusionary as one’s drawing room. At one point, Marcel notes that the liftboy refers to Françoise, one of his grandmother’s servants, as an “employee.” At first Marcel is confused:

Suddenly I remembered that the title of ’employee’ is, like the wearing of a moustache among waiters, a sop to their self-esteem.

It’s amusing that Marcel never even considers the possibility that he may be the one who is incorrect, or stuck in the past which swarms with countless peasants. He decides that there is no difference between hotel workers and servants.

One of the greatest moments in the novel occurs when Marcel sees a group of girls along the seafront. One is pushing a bike and two others have golf clubs–all the accoutrements of physical activity and exertion. One of the girls is Albertine, Marcel’s (future great love):

Just as if, in the heart of their band, which progressed along the ‘front’ like a luminous comet, they had decided that the surrounding crowd was composed of creatures of another race whose suffering could not awaken in them any sense of fellowship, they appeared not to see them, forced those who had stopped to talk to step aside, as though from the path of a machine that had been set going by itself, so that it was no good waiting for it to get out of their way, their upmost sign of consciousness being, when, if some old gentleman of whom they did not admit the existence and thrust from them the contact, had fled with a frightened or furious, but a headlong or ludicrous motion, they looked at one another and smiled. They had, for whatever did not form part of their group, no affection of contempt, their genuine contempt was sufficient. But they could not set eyes on an obstacle without amusing themselves by crossing it, either in a running jump or with both feet together, because they were all filled to the brim, exuberant with that youth which we need so urgently to spend.

One of the young girls even leaps from a bandstand over the head of an elderly gentleman, parked by his much younger wife, “brushing” his yachting cap with her feet as she did so. There’s no compassion for age or infirmity; oh the harshness of youth, and yet there’s also the idea that time is passing and one day these young girls will be the object of derision from another generation. We all have our day in the sun.

It comes so soon, the moment when there is nothing left to wait for, when the body is fixed in an immobility which holds no fresh surprises in store, when one loses all hope on seeing–as on a tree in the height of summer one sees leaves already brown–round a face still young hair that is growing this or turning gray; it is so short, that radiant morning time, that one comes to like only the youngest girls, those in whom the flesh, like a precious leaven, is still at work.

Marcel is fascinated by this group of girls and later in the book, he tries to force a kiss on one of the girls, Albertine. He has mistaken her flagrant, rude youth and behaviour for sexual permissiveness.. There’s also the sense that the world is changing: one person has electricity installed, and heaven forbid, some people have phones! The book is packed with memorable characters: the Marquis de Saint-Loup, a man obsessed with his demanding, imperious mistress, and the unpleasant Baron de Charlus. I rather liked Mme de Villeparisis, an aristo also staying at the hotel. And then the marvellous image of Madame Swann:

So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.

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Grand Hotel Europa: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

I’m a sucker for books set in hotels (and boarding houses) and can easily rattle off some favourites, so when I saw Grand Hotel Europa from Dutch author, IIja Leonard Pfeijffer, I had high hopes. The book starts off strongly with a middle-aged Dutch writer checking into the Grand Hotel Europa located in an unspecified Italian city. It may have been grand at one time, but it’s seen better days. Long-term staff remain in place and there’s a new Chinese owner, Mr. Wang, who is eager to revitalize his investment. The writer, also named Ilja Pfeijffer is there, it seems to recover from a love affair. The stages of this love affair, which we know has failed, unroll as the writer recalls his relationship with art historian Clio. He met Clio in Genoa, and her introduction to the writer (and the reader) is a long strident, bitch session which, considering how privileged she is, made her an extremely annoying character to read about. Unfortunately, the writer falls in love. When Clio gets a job in Venice, which she announces shortly after they meet, the Dutch writer sees no alternative but to move to Venice to be with the woman he loves.

The staff and guests at the hotel are a diverse crew, and everyone seems to have an opinion: a North African Bellboy, Mr Montebello, the maître d’hotel, and a “militant feminist,” guest. Scenes in the hotel are amusing and surreal at times, and the writer notes that his room is loaded with objects:

objects that looked like they’d simply washed up in the suite–old books, a copper bell, a large ashtray in the shape of half a globe borne on the shoulders of Atlas, the skull of a mouse, various writing utensils, a monocle in a case, a stuffed barn owl, a cigar cutter, a compass, a Jews’ harp, a shadow puppet, a brass vase containing peacock feathers, a spray bottle and a wooden monk that turned out to be a nutcracker. It wasn’t clear whether they were intended as part of a decorative concept, or indeed of different, divergent ideas about furnishings that, over the course of time, had been half-heartedly implemented without anyone taking the trouble to remove the results of previous attempts; or whether they were things that had been forgotten by earlier travelers, after which the chambermaids–in the philosophical conviction that history, through the scattered and irreversible depositing of random sediments shaped the present–had refused to erase the traces.

The dated hotel and the weird guests evoke the idea of people, possibly dead people, waiting in the afterworld for whatever, if anything, is next. Many of the characters spout lectures or strong opinions, and the tone of the novel, rife with cultural observations and hard slams against mass tourism, can bludgeon at times.

There are some sex scenes which are rather crude and coarse. I’m not a prude, and I’m not a writer. Sex scenes unless it’s that sort of book frequently seem gratuitous or even boring. Here they were tasteless. The book has a lot of energy and there are some funny sections relating to the indefatigable demands of the tourist and mass tourism, but reading it was wearying at times.

Translated by Michele Hutchinson

Review copy

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Dead Love Has Chains: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

“Is that your idea of girls? That they ought to know nothing of the sorrow and shame that some women have to suffer?”

Lady Audley’s Secret is a favourite novel, and it was also my introduction to the considerable work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Dead Love Has Chains, the story of a mother’s dilemma, is a far less complex tale, and it did not match the excellence of Lady Audley’s Secret.

Lady Mary Harling, accompanied by Daisy Meredith, a poor relation who is also her companion, is on a ship bound for home from Ceylon when she meets a young woman who has a mysterious secret. It’s a long voyage and there is a great deal of idle time. Lady Mary’s cabin is next to that of a girl who says her name is Jane Brown. Jane, who stays in her cabin and does not go on the deck, is accompanied by a dour, unpleasant maid. Lady Mary hears the girl sobbing at night, and feeling concern, begins to make approaches to her lonely, unhappy fellow traveler.

The girl eventually tells Lady Mary her story: without a mother, and with a careless female relative in charge, she was pursued and seduced by a man in India. He suddenly claims he is “not free” to marry as he is already engaged to an American heiress. “Jane” is ruined, and she sent by her father to stay in Ireland. Jane, after confiding in Lady Mary, regrets her rash confidence. She can see that Lady Mary is horrified and Jane makes her swear to keep her secret.

Lady Mary has an only son, Conrad, who falls in love with an innkeeper’s daughter. When she runs off with another man, Conrad goes mad. Conrad eventually recovers and Lady Mary is more protective than ever. She begins to see Conrad drawing close to Daisy, and considers the match vastly unsuitable. But there are worse options. …

Dead Love Has Chains presents a moral dilemma: how much should Lady Mary interfere in her son’s life? If he chooses an unsuitable woman, is there cause or reason to intervene? If the match is unsuitable due to class or fortune, does that matter when weighed against Conrad’s fragile psyche? But what if Lady Mary considers the match unsuitable due to the bride’s past? If a very young girl is seduced, does this implicate moral failing? And is this indicative of future moral failings? This is not an extravagantly dramatic tale; rather it is maternal and domestic in tone. The characters are subordinate to the dilemma, so not much character development here.

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The Lawyer’s Secret: Mary Elizabeth Braddon

“In the practical world we don’t talk about happiness and unhappiness; our phrases are failure and success.”

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novella, The Lawyer’s Secret, is a lackluster tale heavy on dramatic hysteria and low on common sense. The story started well enough. Orphan Ellinor Arden meets with solicitor, Horace Margrave to discuss the details of Ellinor’s recently deceased uncle’s will. While the good news is that Ellinor is the sole heiress to her uncle’s estate, the bad news is that she only gets the loot and the family estate if she marries, Henry Dalton. Dalton is a barrister, and the son of an apothecary (swoon). There’s a bit of a back story here: Ellinor never met the uncle as she lived in a remote area of Scotland, and then she was sent to Paris for 10 years after her father’s death. Squire Arden died unmarried, but his protégé was Henry Dalton, the son of a woman Squire Arden once loved and lost.

Ellinor has never met Henry, and her first reaction to the demands of the will is to reject Henry immediately. She wants to marry for love! But Horace Margrave, as her guardian, advises her to marry Henry and not “throw away three thousand a year.” Without her uncle’s money, Ellinor will have just 100 pounds a year to live on from her late mother’s estate. Ellinor, somewhat petulantly, agrees to meet Henry.

As readers, it’s easy to tell that there’s something afoot–indeed the title tells us that that lawyer is hiding something…

Ellinor marries Henry. Everyone knows it is a marriage of convenience, and Ellinor is bitterly unhappy. She has to ask for every penny, and then Ellinor agrees to give an old family retainer a pension which Henry promptly cuts in half. Henry then sells Arden Hall. Ellinor seeks help from Horace and learns that there is no marriage settlement. She does not have a penny to her name. Of course this is odd. Horace is supposed to be attending to Ellinor’s interests, and to place all of the Arden money in Henry’s hands is egregious. Ellinor trusted, respected and loved Horace. Now she feels betrayed. …

An unhappy wife, a lawyer who is keeping secrets and a husband estranged from his wife. Put these into the pressure cooker and there’s an explosion: the truth is finally revealed. In this sensation fiction novella, Ellinor is not an appealing character and Henry is a stuffed shirt. The entire set up is one of those frustrating scenarios in which one stupid shameful secret ruins everyone’s lives. I can understand why Horace didn’t want the truth to come out, but Ellinor and Henry paid far too much along the way. Horace did something stupid and that sent the train of disaster in motion. Fair enough, but what Horace did after that is really the unforgivable part. Henry should have smacked Horace over the head, and Ellinor should have kicked him in the bottom. Then everyone would have got over it. 5 minutes of shame and pain or years of silent suffering in this storm in a teacup.

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Tracy Flick Can’t Win: Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta’s novel Election, was a lot of fun, and the film version is a classic. The main character is Mr M, a married high school teacher who decides to run interference in a high school election. The almost-sure bet winner for student president is Tracy Flick. and the teacher decides Tracy should not win. Tracy Flick is an incredibly determined, driven character, and essentially, a formidable enemy. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is a follow-up novel to Election. It’s not essential to read Election first, but it certainly helps.

The novel opens with Tracy, now a divorced single parent, working as the Assistant Principal at Green Meadow High School in New Jersey. In Election, there was the sense that Tracy was going to be extremely successful, so what went wrong?

I’d always been a party of one, set apart from the other kids by the conviction–I possessed it from a very early age–that I was destined for something bigger then they were, a future that mattered. I didn’t believe that anymore–how could I, my life being what it was–but I remembered the feeling, almost like I’d been anointed by some higher authority, and I missed it sometimes.

If you read Election or watched the film, then you know that Tracy had an affair with one of her high school teachers, and that Mr. M makes it his business to see that Tracy loses the Election. One of the things I really liked about Election was the creation of the high school world of frustrated ambition, and the teachers who watch students leave for (in theory) brighter, fresher prospects than their own.

So both novels Election and Tracy Flick Can’t Win share elements of frustrated ambition within the high school setting. Tracy’s frustrations with her stalled career centre on her desire to become the new principal–after all she was acting principal during the period in which the principal, Jack Weede, recovered from a heart attack. She knows the job; she’s dedicated, so why isn’t she the preferred candidate?

Over time, it’s revealed why Tracy never had the brilliant career she (and others) expected. And it’s also a bit of a time warp to see Tracy still in high school–even if she is more or less running the place. The big dilemmas here are: 1: who will be the new principal and 2: who will be the two candidates for the Hall of Fame. One of those nominated is Vito Falconea former NFL player who left a trail of damaged lives in his wake. Vito, as a famous athlete, seems the obvious choice, but then that choice harks to the typical high school culture emphasis on sports.

Various voices and viewpoints form the chapters: students on the committee, the principal, a school board member, possible Hall of Famers. One of the students , Lily Chu, begins a relationship with non-binary Clem. “They were a sophomore at Wesleyan.” When I first read this I thought it was a typo.

There wasn’t much humour here and the story wrapped up rather quickly in a way that reflects our violent times. Tracy Flick was a great character in Election. Here we see her worn down by disappointment, and all that fire has mostly fizzled out.. Given the number of Perrotta’s other works that have made it to the screen, we can expect this to be adapted also.

Review copy

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The Second Cut: Louise Welsh

Louise Welsh’s crime novel, The Second Cut, is return to Rilke, the main character in The Cutting Room. It is not necessary to read the first book–although that background undoubtedly makes Rilke a more interesting character. The book opens with Rilke, a Glasgow-based auctioneer, attending the wedding of some friends. Rilke, who is homosexual, is according to another attendee, Jojo, a “serial shagger.” And it’s true; Rilke prefers brisk, spontaneous encounters, often anonymous, and Grindr helps that happen. Rilke’s approach to sex mirrors his approach to life. No emotional involvement. Jojo, who is drunk, gives Rilke a tip about a mansion “full of antiques,” in Galloway. He also passes Rilke an unidentified bottle of liquid and says it contains “sexual energy.”

That’s the last time Rilke sees Jojo alive. The next day, Jojo is found dead in an alleyway, and since Jojo’s reputation with the police is less than stellar, his death is written off as the demise of another junkie. Jojo’s death begins gnawing at Rilke’s mind. Perhaps he would have moved on, but Rilke is questioned by the police. Meanwhile, his boss Rose, who runs Bowery Auctions takes the tip about the mansion, and soon Rilke, Rose and some employees drive out and take inventory of the mansion’s contents. The mansion is owned by the unseen, elderly Aunt Patricia who is about to be shuffled off to a nursing home while her relatives, Frank and Alec Forrest, who are cousins, and seem a little too desperate, wrap up the estate. The mansion is full of antiques and collectibles:

The Forrest clan had been eager supporters of Empire. Their fortune had been accumulated in Malaysia via a rubber plantation and then branched into South African mining. They had been in India too, working with the East India Company.

Rilke, who can’t seem to put Jojo behind him, is contacted by Sands, a seemingly vulnerable young man who rented a room from Jojo. Sands wants to give Jojo a funeral, which given the lack of funds, seems impossible, but then Sands discovers a box full of bottles, “brothers of the distilled sexual energy.” Using connections, Rilke trades the bottles for the cost of a funeral and that brings gangster Jamie Mitchell into the picture. …

The sale at the mansion raises some questions involving moral responsibility, and the auction is fraught with signs of trouble. Rilke asks a few questions and pokes into some dirty business involving drug-fueled orgies.

The Second Cut is an atmospheric crime novel infused with grime and decay. The decay is further emphasized by Rilke’s realization that his best days are past and that, sexually, he’s not such a hot prospect any more. There’s a whole new generations of men who have little time or interest in him. Rilke, who deals in antiques, knows the difference between an item of value and a piece of tat, and Rilke intuits which category he falls into. Throughout the novel, it becomes uncomfortably clear that Rilke’s sell-by-date is long past.

There is nothing except this room: the caravan of objects. The hammer in my hand beats out time, What will you give me? What will you give me for…? The hammer in my hand raps out the order of everything. The world is in my breath. Past and present, weighed and counted.

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Death of My Aunt: C.H.B. Kitchin (1929)

In C.H. B. Kitchin’s amusing country house mystery, Death of My Aunt, London stockbroker, Malcom Warren is unexpectedly summoned to his Aunt Catherine’s home, Otho House, in the country. Malcolm had “invited himself” the home of some friends for the weekend, but when he arrives back at his flat on Friday evening, there’s a telegram waiting from his Uncle Hannibal Cartwright stating that Aunt Catherine wants to see Malcolm that very night. Aunt Catherine is the one person, in all of Malcolm’s extended family, who has any sizeable amount of money. She married a rich, older man, John Dennis, who died in 1919, a decade before this story begins.

Over this money my aunt had absolute control and absolute power of disposition. By virtue of it, she became queen of the family.

When John Dennis died, his side of the family, none of whom were very well off, “considered they had a moral claim” on his estate. Then Aunt Catherine, who had been a beautiful woman, developed a “painful skin disease” and lost her looks. In 1926, she married a much younger man, Hannibal Cartwright, much loathed by Aunt Catherine’s relatives and called a “fortune hunter,” and a “member of the lower classes.” Hannibal was, at the time of the marriage, “the owner or, more probably, the manager of the garage in which she [Catherine] kept her car.” The only one of Aunt Catherine’s relatives who actually likes Hannibal is Malcolm, and part, if not all of Malcolm’s feelings, are rooted in dislike for all of his other relatives, in particular, the Carvel branch–Malcolm’s maternal uncle, his wife and their offspring.

Malcolm arrives late that night at Ortho House, talks briefly to his uncle and is given a letter from Aunt Catherine asking him to look at her investment book which is locked in a desk in her boudoir. Malcolm does as instructed and then the next morning meets with his Aunt. Aunt Catherine is a capricious woman, and it’s not clear exactly what she wants of Malcolm. As they chat, she asks him to fetch her beauty tonic (also from the desk in the boudoir). Aunt Catherine drinks from the bottle, begins to have “spasms” and dies. It’s not long before the doctor arrives and determines that Aunt Catherine’s death is murder.

I liked the book’s light tone, and the narrator’s voice makes for great entertainment. Malcolm realizes quickly that the poison must have been in the very bottle he handed to his Aunt and that he is a prime suspect. At one point, he even draws up a chart listing suspects, and then he gives “marks” for “weakness of alibi,” “opportunity,” “murderous disposition,” and “motive.” To his horror, both he and his uncle score 31 (top marks) out of a possible 40. Of course, there is so much wrong with his chart and his methodology, as we discover over the course of the book. This chart, incidentally, appears in the chapter “Meditation” which reveals more about Malcolm than about the possible identity of the murderer. At one point Malcolm states:

I do not believe that murder is always the most awful of all sins. It may not even be a sin at all.

The Death of My Aunt is a lively little mystery. Part of the fun comes from the snapshot of the times. Malcolm receives 100 a year from his deceased father’s estate, and his spotty stockbroker career could use an injection of cash. Within the first few lines, he mentions his “grimy” hat, and later we find out that some of his recommended investments sank like the Titanic.

Malcolm and all of his relatives are leading a genteel life on a not-so-genteel budget. Some of his female relatives have made unfortunate marriages and many others, post WWI, are spinsters still living at home. One married female relative lives in a “hovel” on the Riviera (!) so all branches of the family are stretched tight when it comes to money. The only exception is, of course, Aunt Catherine, who at age 63, is presented as doddery and querulous–a difficult, spoiled woman with the gall to marry a much younger man staggeringly out of her status and class. Malcolm’s tone, as an amateur sleuth/narrator is lively, fresh and engaging. Here he is musing about the police inspector.

He set no store, as I was to realise more fully later, by the waywardness of human nature, made no allowances for the innumerable irrational acts habitually performed by rational people, had no conception of the mass of habits and inhibitions which continually regulate, unawares, the behaviour of the most normal. He would, I was sure, be suspicious of any plea of absent-mindedness, momentary indecisions, sudden revulsion. In short, I felt he might learn much from me.

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