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Culture Watch



by Diane Setterfield, ©2006
Published by Atria Books, hardcover, 406 pp

This novel is for anyone who loves a good story. It can be called a modern-day gothic, although it lacks the purple prose and sentimentality that are usually hallmarks of the term. It is, in fact, an extremely well-written, engaging tale that will keep the reader enthralled right up to the end.

Our heroine is Margaret Lea, the daughter of an antiquarian bookseller, whose orderly, literary life is turned upside down by a letter from a famous author. Vida Winter is a writer who has enjoyed well-earned renown for many decades, and has given countless interviews to the press, each time providing herself with a different, fanciful biography. Now, at last, she is ready to tell the truth about her life, and she offers Margaret the chance to be her biographer.

Margaret, utterly astounded, travels to Miss Winters’ home, fully intending to turn down the commission. Instead, she finds herself caught up in the story Vida Winters chooses to tell in bits and pieces, and as she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of Winter’s life, Margaret finds parallels to the tragic secret in her own life, a secret that she long ago discovered by mistake, and has long kept to herself.

Those of us who love books will be drawn into The Thirteenth Tale almost instantly, since it begins with a paean to the published word, an almost sensual appreciation for literature, from the stories themselves to the physical aspects of binding and paper and print, and even to their placement on shelves.

Setterfield is a writer’s writer, clear and careful and to the point. At the same time, her evocations of mood and place are masterful. Her description of the ruin of Angelfield Hall ranks right up there with the best of all those British-ruin-on-the-moors tales.

Her tale of love and strangeness, loyalty and betrayal, discovery and redemption, will keep you with her right to the end.

There’s no getting around it: I loved this book. I recommend it to anyone who loves a good story. No, make that good stories, since the novel encompasses several stories on several levels.

If you want a good book to curl up with during winter storms, this one is it.


And Consider This

by Tony Hillerman © 2006
Published by HarperCollins, hardcover, 276 pp

Fans of Tony Hillerman (and this reviewer is one) will be delighted to see the publication of a new book involving Navaho Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (ret.). This time around, the mystery involves a case that has continued to haunt Leaphorn since his retirement.

It will help if you have read earlier Hillermans, and don’t have to try to figure out who characters like Jim Chee, Bernie Manuelito or Professor Lisa Bourbonette are. The Shape Shifter employs those characters only tangentially, but anyone who has read earlier Hillerman works will instantly understand why Leaphorn relies on their assistance. Those who haven’t read the earlier stories may find themselves wondering who these people are.

Of course, Leaphorn does succeed in answering the questions that have long been puzzling him. The tale involves an antique Navaho rug, a fire, and the possible murder of a Most-Wanted criminal, and the plot twists are satisfyingly intricate. The ending, however, is somehow flat and unlikely, leaving the reader to deal with some loose ends.

This is not Hillerman’s best book, but as noted, it may satisfy the fans.


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© 2007 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb

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