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Monday, June 30, 2014

Paisley Mischief

The rich really are different as Lincoln Macveagh proves in his skewering of his own Park Avenue/Hamptons set in Paisley Mischief (#404).  Paisley Mischief does double duty here as both the title of the novel itself, and of the fictional roman a clef which launches a scandal amongst the moneyed set.

Some things are just meant to be kept private.  One can discuss things in the proper setting, like the Avenue Club, an exclusive male haunt, but never outside the confines of one's own set.  Paisley Mischief reveals its embarrassing and salacious secrets to everyone with the money to pay for a copy.  Who could have betrayed them?  It had to have been an insider because many of the Park Avenue crowd know the stories to be true.

In the meantime, the Admissions Committee of the Avenue Club is engaged in deciding on just who to approve for the spring membership list.  Several of the candidates are shoo-ins, but there are also two controversial nominees on the slate.  To admit, or to not admit, that is the question...

This is a slight book, and an amusing one, too, I suppose, if you've never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of this set's thoughtless (or intended!) snubs.  If you have, you have my sympathy.  Read it and root for the underdogs.

The Marathon Conspiracy

What do the discovery of a skeleton in a cave, a schoolgirl's being mauled to death by a bear and the   Battle of Marathon have in common?  They are all pieces of the puzzle in Gary Corby's mystery of ancient Greek, The Marathon Conspiracy (#403).  This is the fourth outing for this unlikely pair of sleuths.  Nicolaos is an investigator working for Pericles at a critical period of Athens' history.  His most difficult task seems to be collecting on the fees Pericles owes him from previous cases so that he can finally marry his partner in detection, the priestess Diotima.

Even though the Battle of Marathon took place thirty years prior, memories of the time leading up to the events of the battle are still raw and vivid to many of the survivors.  When the skull and scroll case found with the body near the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron are sent to Athens for identification, old passions and hatreds are stirred up.  Nicolaos is tasked by Pericles to find out who the skeleton belonged to.  He'll need to talk to the two girls who found the body in a cave.  He has the perfect "in" for the case with Diotima, a graduate of the exclusive girls' finishing school located there.  There are just two problems with Nicolaos' plan: one of the girls has been killed by a bear, and her friend Ophelia has gone missing.   Things take a curious turn when the girl's death turns out to be a murder, and the missing girl's father doesn't want her found.  Throw in another murder or two, some political twists, a naked priestess, a couple of beatings and a wedding and you have an amusing mix in The Marathon Conspiracy.  It's perfect reading for a lazy summer afternoon, and you'll have the bonus of learning a little more about the event which has passed into everyday use in our language.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fatal Enquiry

Author Will Thomas had me from the first sentence of his Victorian era mystery, Fatal Enquiry (#402) - a gentle parody of the opening sentence of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  My own personal enquiry is "Why haven't I come across any of the five previous entries in this Barker & Llewelyn series before?"

Cyrus Barker and his much younger assistant Thomas Llewelyn are both men with checkered pasts.  But that poises them admirably to deal discretely with the situations which their private clients find themselves in, unhampered by the due processes required by the police.  In Fatal Enquiry, the police bring the case to them in the form of a restraining order against Cyrus Barker.  The complainant turns out to be Barker's old and deadly nemesis, Colonel Sebastian Nightwine.  Nightwine is returning to England with diplomatic status from the British Government after a long absence and with influential friends in extremely high places.  His machinations involve a grab for power in Asia with the added bonuses of increasing his own fortune and the disgrace and deaths of his archenemy Cyrus Barker and company.  Cyrus may not be able to prevail in their battle of wits this time.

I found this a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read set in 1880s London. (Think Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.)  I was not surprised to learn that Will Thomas is a librarian himself; it shows in the breadth of casual references to the time and place scattered throughout the story.  The cast of characters are wonderfully drawn both from real life and the author's imagination.  Although the present case is resolved in Fatal Enquiry, a tidbit is thrown out in the book's last paragraph that promises more adventures to come.  In the meantime, I intend to catch up on Barker & Llewelyn's previous cases.

Monday, June 23, 2014


I wasn't familiar with Daniel Palmers's novels until I won a copy of his latest, Desperate (#401), on Goodreads.  Suffice it to say that this thriller kept me guessing until the very end, and I've already put three of his previous books on Hold at my local library.

A couple who have bonded over the loss of a child from their previous marriages decide to adopt a child together.  When they bump into Lily, a pregnant single young woman who agrees to become the birth mother for their child, it seems that fortune has smiled upon Gage and Anna Dekker.  Gage has some reservations about the arrangement, nothing he can quite put his finger on, but Anna seems whole-heartedly committed to this new baby.  Little things begin to bother Gage, and it isn't long before the wheels come off the proverbial cart...

I really thought I had things figured out in this thriller, and I sort of did, but not at all the way I expected; the twists to this story just kept on coming.  What made it especially enjoyable for me was the Boston area setting of this book.  The neighborhood in Arlington where Gage and Anna live is within walking distance of where I grew up, so the menace in these quiet streets was even more real for me.  You don't have to be familiar with the area to appreciate how cleverly Mr. Palmer weaves his tale around such ordinary seeming folks.

Just one recommendation if you read this book: set aside a block of time when you won't be interrupted (a nice, sunny beach comes to mind).  It will be hard to put down once you get started on this roller coaster ride.  Or, as my husband said to me, "You finished that already!?"  What can I say?  I didn't have a choice but to find out what happened next as fast as possible.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Little Demon in the City of Light

Mystery, murder and hypnotism in Belle Epoque Paris: Steve Levingston's (dare I say it?) mesmerizing account of a sensational crime which kept an international audience enthralled is equally riveting to modern readers in his book  Little Demon in the City of Light (#400).

The case centered around the disappearance of a well-to-do Parisian business man and widower, Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe.  The chief of the Paris Surete, Marie-Francois Goron, latched onto this case with all the persistence of a pit bull, playing his hunches.  In 1889 France Goron's methods were unusual, but formed the basis for modern forensic enquiry in the resources he employed in solving this case.  And solve it he did.  The perpetrators of this crime turned out to be a middle-aged philanderer and con man named Michel Eyraud, and his most unlikely accomplice a petite young woman of twenty, Gabrielle Bompard.  Gabrielle claimed that she could not be blamed for the murder since she had "no will" of her own.  In other words, Eyraud had hypnotized her and forced her into helping him commit the heinous act.  International society figures avidly followed the proceedings in the Paris Court, and those who could not attend in person bought every newspaper covering the case they could get their hands on.  In its day, the course of the investigation and trial was as well known as the O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony show trials are to the modern audience.  It didn't hurt that sex was involved and that the seductress herself was actively courting the public and the press.

The details of the case, the scientific battle to vindicate the use of hypnotism as defense which played out in the courtroom, the backgrounds of those involved, criminals, victims, and judiciary alike are all presented here in a manner as engaging as a novel.  There is much truth in that old saw: truth is stranger than fiction.   My only regret is that I had a pre-publication copy which did not include the photographs.  I'll be making a beeline to my library to check those pictures out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself

Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself (#399) by Rachel Lloyd was a recommended book following a recent session on human trafficking I attended at our local YWCA.  What I learned at that breakfast was pretty horrifying even in the brief panel presentation.  But to read about what Rachel Lloyd describes in her account of her own experience and escape from "the life" and what she's done in response is absolutely stunning.

The sheer scope of human trafficking which exists right under our own noses is astonishing.  Our attitudes towards it, as touched on by Ms. Lloyd, are shaped by the culture around us.  We may feel empathy towards the young girls and women who are trafficked to the United States from Ukraine, Eastern Europe or even the Far East, and support programs designed to help them escape and start a new life.  What we fail to recognize are that most sex-trafficked victims here in the US are American girls, mostly of color and from poverty, who are bought and sold by the colossal economic engine of the commercial sex trade.  The twelve, thirteen and fourteen year old victims of this trade are mostly viewed by the average American as "teen prostitutes" who are in the business willingly, and are treated as criminals, remanded to jail and put right back out on the streets again after their sentences are served with no counseling or guidance, or programs designed to show them that there are other options.  If not helped, most of these girls will have an average life span of seven years after they enter "the life".  Prostitution is not a "victimless crime".  These children are the victims, and until our own attitudes change, we continue to contribute to their victimization. 

I recognize that I am equally culpable here, but that doesn't mean I can't change.  I think that's the whole point of Ms. Lloyd's powerful book, and GEMS, the agency she's founded in New York City to combat this problem, does give a small ray of hope.

Read Girls Like Us.  I guarantee it will be a revelation.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Please Don't Tell

It's so disconcerting to realize that you are growing older.  That thought occurred to me after I finished reading Elizabeth Adler's romantic suspense novel Please Don't Tell (#398).  It was definitely the serial killer aspect of the story that appealed to me here, not the romance.  In fact, I thought her denouement was actually rather cynical about the depth and endurance of relationships in general.  That was a romance buzz kill for me!

In Please Don't Tell, there is a serial killer on the loose in San Francisco.  He carefully chooses and stalks his victims in advance and young Emergency Room doctor Vivian Dexter is already in his sights before she treats his latest victim in the ER.  Ms. Adler gives us several possible perpetrators woven into the lives of the three Dexter women.  There's Vivi, the doctor who can't find love; her younger sister JC who thinks the world owes her a living, and their aunt Fen, the woman who raised them, living in an isolated cottage on the cliffs near Big Sur.  I did (successfully, as it turns out) figure out who the killer was well before the final reveal, but maybe you won't.  There are plausible motives for at least three men here.

This is not a bad book, but it's not the frothy tale of intrigue I was really expecting, either.  I have to admit I've enjoyed Ms. Adler's earlier books much more.  And I really could do without the gratuitous "F" bombs scattered rather heavily throughout.  I guess that's just another sign of my age.  Sigh...

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Chestnut Street

I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but I did so enjoy Maeve Binchy's writing that I wanted to read this compilation of character sketches and ideas for a future novel which she wrote over a number of years before her death last year.  The results of her editors' work did not disappoint; on the contrary Chestnut Street (#397) was almost a Twitter version of Ms. Binchy's writing - succinct, poignant, touching and yet satisfying.

Not all of these stories have happy endings.  Not all of the characters are admirable or likable, but that's a reflection of real life, isn't it?  Some are just downright delightful.  What all of these stories have in common is their tie to Chestnut Street, a fictitious horseshoe of houses in Dublin.  It's not an upscale neighborhood, but it's far from the worst, and could be improved with some gentrification.  It's amazing how many stories can come from just this one place in the author's imagination.

Go and visit Chestnut Street if you have any affection for Maeve Binchy's writing.  You'll be happy to spend a little more time with her there.

Friday, June 6, 2014

China Dolls

Lisa See continues to explore aspects of her Chinese heritage in her latest novel China Dolls (#396).  Ruby, Helen and Grace meet at an audition for San Francisco's newest nightclub, Forbidden City.  It's 1938 and all three women have secrets as they strive to become stars not only on the Oriental Chop Suey circuit, but in the Occidental world of entertainment as well.  Betrayal will tear them apart during the war years, but ultimately bind them together in the aftermath.

Ms. See alternates the point of view from chapter to chapter, focusing on how the events around them affect Grace, Helen and Ruby.  I thought this might be confusing, but it gives the author a chance to illuminate different aspects of the legal and cultural restrictions hemming in Chinese women and men in the period leading up to and surrounding World War II as well as fleshing out their personalities.  Each of these characters' reactions reflect her upbringing and beliefs.

Equally interesting is the exotic world of Chinese nightclubs popular during this period.   Ms. See brings this vividly to life in China Dolls.  It really wasn't until I read this book that I realized just how few Oriental faces there were in movies of that time, or actually until relatively recently.  To my knowledge, I've never seen a movie with Dorothy Toy, a celebrated dancer, and one of the few Asians to appear in a featured role in a Hollywood movie.  I will definitely have to keep my eye out for her on Turner Classic Movies (one of my favorite channels!).  Almost the only entertainer I did recognize from this book was Jackie Soo, who was featured in the TV sitcom Barney Miller.

On a more sober note, Ms. See cites Iris Chang's horrifying history, The Rape of Nanking, which one of the characters in her book experiences for herself in Hangchow.  If you're not familiar with this, check out my posting on The Rape of Nanking (9/8/2011) to learn more.

In any event, I doubt you'll leave China Dolls without being moved by Ruby, Grace and Helen's strength, ambition, endurance and determination to succeed.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.

I like the cover photo of The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. (#395).  In fact, I think it is more evocative than Carole DeSanti's novel of Second Empire/Third Republic Paris.  Ms. DeSanti is a book editor at Penguin Group and should know her way around a good story, but here I think her storytelling has been sacrificed on the altar of her literary ambition.  The tale of Eugenie Rigault has only the barest bones of a skeletal structure on which to drape the swathes of metaphor, allegory and philosophical outpourings of the eponymous narrator.

Eugenie is a goose girl living in the region of southwest France where fois gras is the main industry, only a notch above a country bumpkin due to her mother's pretensions to have her painting displayed in the annual Salon.  Eugenie is led astray, with her own willing cooperation and rebelliousness, by the scion of a wealthy family who has come to broker a business deal.  She follows her lover to Paris in 1861, spending her small amount of cash in a vain effort to connect with him there.  Instead she meets an artist whose portrait of Eugenie as the Unknown Woman creates a sensation and sets tongues wagging about the identity of the model.  Eugenie is unaware of this and unable to benefit financially.  When her small stash of money is gone, so is the rest of her virtue, swallowed up in the government-sponsored industry of prostitution.  She is forced to abandon her child to the state-run foundling system so her child will have a better chance of survival than she can provide.  She trusts no one around her, least of all her lovers, male or female.  Eugenie eventually has a modicum of success as a procuress, always with the aim of rescuing her child.  She lives through the Siege of Paris and emerges even more determined to win back control of her daughter, only to find that her former lover has beaten her to it and spirited the girl away.

That's the story in a nutshell.  When I started reading this book, I felt as though I had come in during the middle of a play where I had missed some vital information in the opening act, and I never caught up all the way through the book.  When I finally reached the end, 404 pages later, my reaction was an indignant "That's IT???!!!"  There was neither a satisfactory conclusion to Eugenie's tale, nor the promise of more to come in the future (which frankly, I wouldn't have bothered with anyway).  I had hoped for so much more from this book.  I hope you're not as disappointed as I was.