One of the many great things about books is that they can take you to far away places. As I have started to travel more in the past decade or so, I am finding I like to read about a place, even if it is fiction, before and after a trip to a certain place. Last year, I read a few Italy-centric books prior to our trip ... The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, a fairly sinister portrayal at Venice... and two Rome books, Tom Rachman's look at fictional international newspaper in The Imperfectionists and Paula Butturini's memoir, Keeping the Feast, about surviving family tragedy, but also a real love letter to the Eternal City. Never did, and still looking, for that perfect Florence book.
While the books can get one in the mood, still it is probably even more fun to read about a place that you have been. While you may not go to each and every locale referenced in the book, you can still usually fill in the gaps with your own experience and a little imagination. So I have a feeling with our likely (still have to book it) but still unexpected return to Italy later this year, I will find myself searching for books set in Italy. And it has started already, with Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon.
I stumbled on this book thanks to a "friend" on Goodreads. I put that in real air quotes, since this is a person I really do not know, which is different from the folks I consider to be my friends but just haven't met face-to-face. But anyhow, I saw a book that she logged as "currently reading" that was very obviously set in Venice, so I explored it to learn it was actually Book #19 in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series (with Book #20 just released in hardcover). I was very surprised that I had never heard of the series, author, etc. I tend to think I know a lot about books, even genres or authors I don't read and you would think if a series had been around for nearly 20 years, I would have heard about it (as there obviously is a reason it's still around!).
Anyhow, I researched and decided to go all the way back to Book #1 (published in 1992)... Death at La Fenice. I even had to go to a bookstore and buy the real-life, hands-on physical book as it wasn't available as an e-book (good news is that it appears to be the only one in the series that was not). While I wasn't terribly enthusiastic about starting another book series as they suck up so much space on my ever-large to-be-read list, it just didn't seem like I could pass this one up, particularly since we have visited La Fenice while we were there. La Fenice is a theater that has had a checkered past, it has burned down 3 times, most recently in the 90s and its rebuilding was the subject of a book that I had read a while back (long before I was blogging), The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (which Todd read prior to our trip). So to set a death in this theater, seemed like a perfect place to kick off a mystery/detective series.
Overall, this was a quick, readable, and harmless novel. Charming lead detective (commissario!). Check! Interesting cast of supporting player. Check! It is not a complex book (ala say Stieg Larsson). Even though I never find myself compelled to solve the mystery when I read these types of books, I still kinda sorta guessed what happened, but not with all the details why. So, no great work of literature here, but yet another series of books that I can turn to when I looking for a literary palette cleanser/fun diversion after some recent "serious" reading (which was the case here post-Skippy Dies).
I am not sure this book would get someone excited/stoked for their first trip to Venice, as Leon does not necessarily paint a full picture of the city... but I kind of liked that she does not clobber readers over the head with Venetian references and landmarks... it just is.
I have no doubt that I will continue on with the series, likely getting to a book (or two) before our trip in the fall and again when I looking for something light and easy to read. Whether I will ever catch up with the prolific Leon, I highly doubt it!