An Unforgettable Novel of New Zealand

The books of these last few weeks have yielded both the best novel I have read this year (so far) and one of the more difficult, scholarly works I’ve ever undertaken.

Let me start with Nailani Singh’s 2021 novel, “Quiet In Her Bones”. This is a remarkable mystery with layers and layers of twists and turns. Take a narrator who is recovering from a serious physical injury, and has never recovered from the disappearance of his mother in his childhood. As the story begins, her car with her remains has just been found in the New Zealand jungle very near the exclusive neighborhood in which they lived. That neighborhood and his neighbors, who he has known for years (but does he really know them at all??) form the universe of this novel. Like the wild of New Zealand itself, “Quiet In Her Bones” is full of exotic secrets and discovery. You will enjoy this book and be kept wondering ’til (almost) the end who killed this lady and how the murderer threw her determined, devoted son off the trail.

Not long before the pleasure of reading Nailani Singh, I delved into “The Leonine Encyclicals 1878-1902” by Pope Leo XIII. For non-Catholics, papal encyclicals (literally “circulars”) are policy letters to bishops and church leaders, explaining or illuminating the Church’s teaching, and often relating those ageless teachings to the current period or events. Leo XIII had one of the longest reigns in history and wrote by far the greatest number of encyclicals, including the most famous one ever, “Rerum Novarum”, in 1891. This volume is a sample of his letters, each of which is fascinating but difficult to read for two reasons: the 19th century vernacular, and the dizzying heights of his intellect. I can’t say I understood everything, but found what I did understand valuable and stimulating.

Also recently:

“Snare of the Hunter” by Helen MacInnes (1974) I love this book, and I think it’s one of her best, but Helen MacInnes’ own story is pretty cool, too. She married an actual MI6 operative, who also taught at universities in the UK and US. But she is the one who wrote espionage tales, first around the events in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, and later Cold War-themed, like this outing. Her husband didn’t know she was writing in her spare time until their son’s appendix burst, and he came across his wife’s notes,and encouraged her to turn them into her first novel. We owe that appendix a debt of gratitude. In “Snare”,  the daughter of a prominent exile flees Czechoslovakia, aided by an American with whom she once had a brief fling. But is she really more of a provocateur than a victim?

“The Flight in The Clouds” by James Busha (2014) Here’s a collection of combat stories by the Allied pilots who flew the legendary p-51 Mustang fighter in WW2. These planes were the pinnacle of the prop fighter-era, so beloved today that even Tom Cruise owns one (and flew it in the early part of “Top Gun: Maverick”.

“The Black Mountain” by Rex Stout (1954) A unique “Nero Wolfe” mystery in that, Wolfe gets off his ample butt and treks through mountains and mayhem behind the Iron Curtain, in order to avenge and solve the killing of his best friend, a restauranteur in New York. Most of the Wolfe novels play off of the fact that he never leaves his brownstone office, or the upstair orchid rooms, while depending on his versatile and trustworthy sidekick, Archie Goodwin. In this case, he matches Archie step for step and risk for risk.

“The Columbus Affair” by Steve Berry (2012) While I remain a big fan of the Berry books, I can’t recommend this one at all. A convoluted plot involving a lost secret kept by the explorer, which somehow will alter geopolitical events in the Middle East…it’s too many characters, too many suppositions and Berry tries too hard to cram his enthusiasm for history (which I usually share) into every page.

“Pickup on Noon Street” by Raymond Chandler (also includes the short novels: “Smart Aleck Kill”, “Guns at Cyrano’s”, “Nevada Gas”) Chandler is one of the greatest American writers, albeit he was British-American, to be precise. Every novel he wrote became a movie, such as “The Big Sleep” and “Lady in the Lake”. This quartet is made up of pieces originally for mystery magazines in the 1930s, and of the four, I liked “Pickup” and “Nevada Gas” best of all.

As always, if you try a book on my say-so, please tell me what you thought, or share your recommendations with me: [email protected]

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