Settings and Cultures

I love a story with a good setting. One that pulls you in and makes you feel as if you are there. The three books I’ve read this week are in very diverse places, but all made me feel I was in the worlds the authors were describing.

Tamarack County by William Kent Krueger is set in Northern Minnesota in the winter. Even though I’m here in warm, sunny Florida I felt the cold and the snow. I was shivering in my warm bed while reading. Krueger also surrounds you with a local culture – a mixture of small town and the “Rez” as he calls it. Native American culture weaves in and out of the story.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home is set on the coast of Scotland. I could smell the salt air and feel the loneliness of a deserted village on a coastal island where fishing had failed and the families had relocated to the mainland.

Both of these books were good mysteries with complex plots and interesting characters. But what sticks with me is the setting and culture of each book.

The third book is entirely different – A True Novel (II) by Minae Mizumura. I picked this up by accident at the library, not realizing it was the second part of the story. (I’ll go back and find the first book.) The story is about a Japanese man who moves to New York and makes his fortune. Apparently the first book is set in New York, but the second book is all in Japan. I could picture it, feel it, (even though I’ve never been there) and sense the changes in the culture as time passes. This is not the type of novel I usually read. I think the setting is what kept me reading even more than the sad story.

Going back to some other books I’ve recently read and enjoyed, I believe setting is part of the attraction. Deborah Crombie’s The Sound of Broken Glass is apparently a book in a series. I haven’t read the previous books but had no problem jumping in at number fifteen. The setting is in South London’s Crystal Palace, a neighborhood of musicians, a village within the city. The Crystal Palace was a huge glass structure built for the Great Exhibition of London in 1851 in Hyde Park and rebuilt in an even larger version in an upscale neighborhood in South London in 1854. It burned to the ground in 1936, but the neighborhood still goes by that name. I was drawn into the neighborhood and the musical culture.

Lost by S. J. Bolton is more character driven, but the setting in the back streets of London captured me.

Colin Cotterill’s The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die is the latest of his stories set in Laos in the 1970’s. He brings you into this strange place on the other side of the world and he does it with humor.

Hilarious

Suspend your disbelief for the funniest of novels. I’ve seen reviews of these books that say these things could never happen. But some of them actually do happen. And to me that’s part of the humor. The authors can take a common event and turn it into an outrageous adventure. Even though many of these books base their stories on real events, the authors take you to a place where you can enjoy the humor of the situation. When I need a good laugh and a break from bleak reality, humorous books are the best prescription.

If you’ve read any of Tim Dorsey’s novels, you know that he writes sick, raucous humor. His protagonist, Serge Storms, is an insane killer who thinks up the weirdest ways to do away with anyone he thinks doesn’t deserve to live. He even killed a guy for littering in one of his books. Serge’s sidekick, Coleman, is always under the influence – alcohol and all kinds of drugs. Serge doesn’t indulge except occasionally when he decides to take his medication for his psychosis.

They drive around Florida, never staying long in one place. Something I find very interesting about these books is that they are loaded with Florida history. Serge loves Florida. He stops at any and every historical marker and museum. He finds places where no one else would bother. He loves the wildlife, the swamps, the amusement parks, the old buildings. He describes them all and the history behind them. And he does this without boring you. Lots of insane humor. If you check out any of the places they visit, well known or obscure, you will find they are real. Dorsey has to be a real Florida history buff.

Carl Hiaasen is one of my favorite authors. He’s another one who writes his stories in Florida. He throws together groups of wild characters and weird events that could happen (and sometimes do happen) in Florida. He mocks Florida politics, land development, and environmental policies. One character who makes an appearance from time-to-time is an ex-governor eco-terrorist. Other characters show up in more than one book, but mostly we are meeting new and outlandish people in each novel.

Sadly, Elmore Leonard is no longer with us. He wrote in many diverse styles, including mystery, detective, westerns…even nonfiction. He also wrote some great crime humor, many set in Florida. He will be missed.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels made me fall out of my chair laughing when I started reading them. But after 19 or 20 books, Stephanie is getting a little old these days. (I don’t mean old in years because she never ages.) She doesn’t change or grow or make up her mind about her life and her two boyfriends. Some of the other characters in the Plum novels have changed and grown and are more interesting. I prefer reading some of Evanovich’s other novels, based on other characters, now that I’ve grown a bit tired of Stephanie. These books are set in New Jersey. You probably thought I thought all humor sprang from Florida.