JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart

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Jade Dragon Mountain
By Elsa Hart
Minotaur Books – September 2015
ISBN 9781250072320 – 336 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


This debut novel by Elsa Hart was a real pleasant surprise, a book with a captivating story, characters, and prose. The second of two mystery/crime novels that I recently read to feature a non-Western setting and Jesuit characters, Jade Dragon Mountain stood out as giving a strong sense of historical setting and avoiding genre clichés while keeping a traditional murder mystery structure. The sequel comes out this September, so now would be a perfect time for mystery fans to discover this notable new series.
It is the early 1700s on the border of China and Tibet, a little over half a century since the founding of the Qing dynasty. Exiled imperial librarian Li Du arrives at a remote Chinese border town among a diverse host of citizens and travelers gathered for an extraordinary ceremony: a solar eclipse commanded by the authority of the Emperor himself. When a Jesuit astronomer is found murdered in an official’s home the authorities are quick to point fingers at bandits, but Li Du suspects the murder is far from random. Surrounded by strangers who hide secrets and divulge lies, Li Du struggles between the choices of departing his homeland in acceptance of his exile, or following his instincts and conscious through an enquiry that could lead to repercussions both personal and imperial.
The pacing of Hart’s writing for this historical Chinese murder mystery is spot on. Her plots, character developments, and sentences neither rush nor needlessly delay.
“He imagined then that the shifting clouds contained thousands of years, and that he had seen the same tree in two different times. What if every moment of that tree’s existence, the whole of its past and its future, existed at once, here in this blank and infinite cloud? An eerie suggestion of his own insubstantiality pulled at him. He, too, was inside the void.”
Measured, flowing prose such as this make much of Jade Dragon Mountain a story to savor, without sacrificing readability or the entertainment of the plot’s twisting surprises. Hart’s style also manages to successfully merge disparate elements – historical realism, an ‘exotic’ locale, folklore, romance, comedy, politics, social commentary, and of course mystery – into one cohesive whole.
I’ve mentioned the good character development in Hart’s debut novel, and this is certainly true for its protagonist Li Du. The other novel I recently read with surface similarities to this one had a Jesuit scientist in the role of detective, a ‘casting’ that echoes with familiarity for the crime genre. Aside from giving that Jesuit protagonist background training to make him of use for catching a killer, his existence as a Jesuit within the setting of that novel wasn’t much explored. With Jade Dragon Mountain the Occident-styled Jesuit is the victim, and the detective is a man solely immersed in Chinese culture, a man of high intellect – but not one you would immediately pick to fill the role of investigator. Hart augments that unlikelihood by making Li Du an imperial exile, a Chinese man now separated from a huge part of his culture while still being emotionally and spiritually linked with it. And that makes Li Du very fascinating. Seeing his further development through events and interactions keeps holding the reader’s interest.
The weakest aspect of Hart’s debut novel though stems from her inclusion of so many characters. It is important for upping the level of unknowns the story needs as a mystery and it allows for a diversity of character points of views and interactions across cultures. However on the more individual scale these secondary characters often lose resolution. Aside from Li Du, a story-teller named Hamza is the character who stands out in memory; the other supporting cast intermesh, and keeping track of may could take some effort in the early parts of the novel. I do also wish the female characters had greater presence, though by the final portion of the novel Li Du does interact with one more – and therefore so does the reader. Hamza is just delightful. He lends a light comic relief to the story and spins secondary tales that are just as fun to experience as the novel as a whole. I hope he appears in future stories featuring Li Du.
The White Mirror, the second book of this ‘Li Du mystery series’ comes out on 6th September 2016; I wish I hadn’t gotten behind in reviewing because I would have eagerly jumped on an early copy of it. This is a series I definitely plan to continue with and I will be purchasing a hard copy of this first novel. Hart’s novel offers a fresh setting and a variety of cultures to explore from multiple perspectives, so I don’t predict it is the kind of mystery series that would easily slip into tired formula.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-Reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson

In Retrospect, by Ellen Larson
Five Star Publications
(Gale-Cengage Learning)
ASIN: B00G5K7VWE
268 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

As a light sci-fi mystery this novel works really well. The characters are interesting, the writing is professional, and the plotting is done well to keep you guessing how things will exactly turn out. Beyond an entertaining diversion there isn’t much here, and that’s fine if a little diversion is all you’re looking for. I would have liked a little more emphasis on the world-building here, and on the science that allows this little mystery plot to unfold. Most jarring, the characters speak exactly like we do today, slang and all, despite being set over a millennia into the future. So to enjoy this one does have to suspend a certain measure of disbelief at the setup and go along for the ride.

The narrative is told through chapters that skip back and forth between different time periods of the life of the protagonist, Merit, starting at the onset with her apparent murder. Larson manages to write these narrative shifts in time without losing the reader, and this is really important, because the book simply wouldn’t work except written in a round-about temporal manner. It is this construction that allows the mystery, as events of Merit’s past now come back to force the present situation.

Merit is probably what I enjoyed most about the novel. Her character is complex and conflicted, unsure of who she can trust any longer, and uncertain of her own capabilities and strengths. Although the novel lacked aspects that I would usually want to see in a sci-fi book, the depths of that character really brought this novel into something interesting to read.

Three Stars out of Five