This past month, I celebrated my birthday by exploring authors also born in May.
This endeavor gave me a chance to explore some works I may not have otherwise read, which goes hand in hand with my goal to branch out in my reading this year.
Before I get into what I read, there’s one more novel I feel like I’d be remiss not to mention — “Watership Down” by Richard Adams. I read “Watership Down” a couple years back, and it instantly became one of my favorite books. I mention it only because Richard Adams (though deceased since 2016) is one of the very few people I’ve come across who shares my birthday of May 9.
“The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett
“The Maltese Falcon” is a cornerstone of noir detective fiction, which was apparent from the start.
Within the first few pages, I had a clear depiction of the setting in 1920s San Francisco. I could see the dimly lit room and a curl of smoke rising from the cigarette held in the hand of a solemn-looking detective clad in a trench coat and fedora. I could almost hear the click-clack of a typewriter in the background.
The detective is Sam Spade, described as a blond satan, with a face composed of v’s, from his thick eyebrows to curved nostrils and jutting, bony chin. He plays by his own rules, especially when his partner is murdered after a mysterious but beautiful woman hires him to tail the man she says kidnapped her sister. But is she telling the truth?
Spade learns new information at every turn, slowly piecing together a strange story about an extremely valuable, jewel-encrusted falcon statue dating back to the 16th century. The artifact has changed hands numerous times, and Spade is offered a large sum of money to help find it again. But he can’t tell who is being straight with him and who is giving him the runaround.
This was my first Dashiell Hammett novel, which I was excited to read because of my love for mysteries. I’m not going to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I will say it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The story was certainly interesting and unique, but there was just something about it that didn’t draw me in like my beloved Agatha Christie mysteries. Maybe it was that the murders were solved before the end of the book, and I didn’t feel suspense building up to the big reveal. Or maybe it was that the ending I envisioned didn’t come.
Either way, it was an enjoyable book I’m glad I read but won’t be ranking among my favorites. I’ll likely give more of Dashiell Hammet’s work a try in the future and hope I find something more to my liking.
“Evening Class” by Maeve Binchy
OK, I know I already read and reviewed a Maeve Binchy book this year, but I loved the first one so much that when I found out she was born in May I took it as an excuse to read another.
Reading Binchy, for me, has become akin to being wrapped up in a warm blanket. Her characters are so loveable, and the world she creates is absolutely charming.
“Evening Class” centers on eight seemingly unconnected people but with stories eventually woven together like a quilt.
Through the creation of an Italian evening class, Latin teacher Aidan Dunne — feeling depressed in both his home and work life — brings the colorful cast of characters together. There’s Signora, the eccentric Irishwoman who spent the last 26 years in Sicily, pining after her forbidden lover. There’s the mysterious Lou, caught up in things he shouldn’t be; timid Kathy, trying to find an outlet to ease the stress of high school; simple Laddy, bent on traveling overseas; lonely, rich Connie, doing something just for herself for once in her life; ill-at-ease Bill, working to move up the corporate ladder to provide for his flighty girlfriend; and shy Fiona, trying to figure who she is in the world.
Woven into each character’s backgrounds are stories of crime, dark family secrets, heartbreak, loss and yearning for something missing from life, whether it be money, companionship, self-confidence or even happiness. The characters all grow together, in one way or another, through this evening class.
There’s something serenely satisfying about a book that ends exactly how you want it to. I’ll admit reading would be boring if every book were to end just as I hoped it would, but I can’t shake the comfort I feel in leaving Binchy’s characters right where I want them to be.
“Bloodline” by Jess Lourey
This month’s featured Minnesota author is Jess Lourey. The story amid the pages of her 2021 novel “Bloodline” is one of the most compelling tales I’ve ever read.
This is a book I had to peel myself away from every night, forcing myself to go to bed at 3 a.m. instead of continuing to read.
The novel is loosely based on the real-life story of Jackie Theel, a 6-year-old boy who vanished from Paynesville, Minnesota, in 1944. The case remains unsolved to this day.
“Bloodline,” set in 1968, is narrated by pregnant journalist Joan Harken, who moves from Minneapolis to her boyfriend’s small Stearns County hometown of Lilydale, which I can only assume is based on Paynesville. There, she hears stories of Paulie Aandeg, a 6-year-old boy who went missing 24 years ago. The case interests her, especially when she starts her new job as a reporter for the Lilydale Gazette, but no one in town seems too keen on talking about the case much. In fact, there’s something off about the whole town in general, especially Joan’s future in-laws and their friends, the residents of Mill Street, who all but run the town.
To outsiders, Lilydale seems like an ideal, quaint small town, but something sinister is going on with the Mill Street families.
Or is it all in Joan’s head? She can’t figure out if it’s just the pregnancy messing with her head or if she really has stumbled into something dark and dangerous. And if that is the case, does she have time to get out before something bad happens to her or her baby?
“Bloodline” is dark and twisted and suspenseful and thrilling. My jaw dropped more than once, and I was almost disappointed when I finished it because it was that good. But I cannot wait to read more of Lourey’s work.