Monthly Archives: May 2012

Cain His Brother – Anne Perry

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William Monk has been busted out of the police force in Victorian London and, with no other skills but detective work, set himself up as a private eye. When Genevieve Stonefield comes to him with a desperate tale of a missing husband, he suspects a fiscal or romantic entanglement. But Angus, the missing man, seems to have been a model of rectitude and there is no mistaking his wife’s distress. She believes he went to the Limehouse section of town where his wastrel twin brother Caleb haunts the docks and alleys, a fearsome murderous criminal.

As Monk sets off to find Caleb and determine if and how Angus has met with foul play, typhoid fever sweeps through the slums and Hester Latterly and several wealthy patrons convert an old warehouse into a makeshift hospital. Hester and Monk have some history but it is as much antagonism as attraction and they spend this book sparring relentlessly. Monk has reasons to visit the typhoid shelter and Heather has emergency nursing duties for one of her helpers who succumbs to the fever. The woman is the wife of Lord Rathbone, Angus and Caleb Stonefield’s childhood guardian—the plot thickens.

So, we have Cain and Abel—er, Caleb and Angus—plenty of excuses for Monk’s and Hester’s paths to cross on a regular basis, a seedy waterfront setting and a hunt for a missing identical twin. Alas, I figured out a major, major plot point before the fever had even taken hold in the filthy back alleys of London. But Anne Perry pulls out her usual bag of tricks and surprises in Cain His Brother and suspecting what really happens does not dim the pleasure in tracking what is happening. Monk is framed by a beautiful woman who accuses him publicly of attacking her, a charge that will ruin him and make it impossible for him to work. Certain society matrons have rather colorful and extremely veiled pedigrees. Perry throws in her version of the movie car chase—a wild hunt for a vicious perp on and along the Thames, on foot and on barges.

The William Monk mysteries are reliably satisfying. The sights and sounds of Victorian London, especially its seedier environs, are vivid and convincing. Hester and Monk’s wary circling is acerbic and fun to watch. I ran out of hours trying to keep up with overscheduled life and a seriously long YA book that is also a very good read, so I jumped into the polluted Thames with Monk, who can always be counted on for a thrill ride and a complex, twisted plot. Even knowing the key to the riddle of the disappearance didn’t help me to unravel all of it. I did, however, slide into the last chapter well before midnight. Murder mysteries will probably get me through the year.

Cain His Brother: A William Monk Novel (Mortalis)   Anne Perry | Ballantine Books  2010

Blue Asylum – Kathy Hepinstall

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Blue Asylum has the clarity of perfectly clean water, pale blue and clear to the sandy bottom, so empty that you can see the markings on the shells there. The water off Florida’s Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico, setting for the lunatic asylum that swallows Iris Dunleavy just after the Civil War, used to be that blue and translucent. The beaches were thick with prized shells and sea turtles covered the sand above the tideline with their nests each summer and their hatchlings in the height of hurricane season. I don’t know if there was ever a mental hospital on the island, back in the late 1800s, but Blue Asylum is a credible approximation of what one would have been.

Iris is delivered to the private human warehouse by cattle boat after her plantation owner husband has her declared insane and committed. Her crime is to have been too dreamy a girl, marrying a brute who considered his slaves to be disposable property, refusing to celebrate the bloody whippings for minor, or imagined, infractions, plotting a disastrous escape and insisting on her own autonomy, integrity and sanity in a sadistic patriarchal society.

The asylum is full of rich characters—the woman who believes her adored husband of forty years is still alive and dances with her on the beach, the seemingly sane woman who swallows things that are not meant to be swallowed, the Confederate soldier who slips into a screaming frenzy at any trigger for the nightmares that grip his memory and his mind. The psychiatrist is as obstinate and obtuse as the sentencing judge—Iris must be mad, else why would she be in his establishment? The matron is a malicious beast who sets Iris up for the horrifying water cure, a torture the doctor has developed to treat resistant cases.

Wendell, the shrink’s thirteen-year-old son, is going mad himself, isolated on the mosquito- and alligator-infested barrier island. He harbors terrible guilt and crushing grief for the suicide of a girl he befriended before Iris arrived. Wendell is a great character—the most empathetic and evolved person in the story. He worries about Iris as she falls in love with a dangerous patient.

What happens when truth is corrosive enough to eat through the lies wrecks the comfortable assumptions that order this mad world. The personal horrors that the main players harbor are revealed slowly but evidence of them is there from the first. Terrific book but hard to read because it made me so furious at the way human connection and the intrinsic worth of women, children, slaves and the spiritually wounded were casually and relentlessly discounted.

Confronting reality comes at a cost. People do change in the course of the novel and some are lost. That kid Wendell is a prize. Good read, if at times blood-pressure-raising. Blue Asylum is a story well-told.

Blue Asylum   Kathy Hepinstall | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

A River in the Sky – Elizabeth Peters

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The Emerson family, the brightest and bossiest collection of human beings to grace early 1900s archaeology, has been unleashed on another artifact-rich region. This time the delightful and troublesome Ramses is a young man—he’s an admirable young man but I love him as the hell-on-wheels six-year-old in older Egyptian adventures—and there is an adopted daughter, Nefret, whose acquisition must have been the fascinating topic of another book.

A River in the Sky tracks Amelia Peabody Emerson, her blustery, adoring and brilliant Egyptologist husband, Nefret and a motley crew of friends, servants and hangers-on to Jerusalem where a bumbling amateur intends to dig for the Ark of the Covenant at one of the holiest sites in Palestine. Ramses is already in Palestine on another dig, getting himself perilously involved in a murderous intrigue. The Germans are planning a railroad and an eventual occupation of the region. Turkish soldiers of the Ottoman Empire don’t bother with niceties when keeping order. Weird characters abound and many of them might be spies or other nefarious villains.

As ever, Amelia is brusque, intelligent, competent, attracted to the most dangerous sites and the possibilities of a dig to clear up some historical mysteries. But this time an added complication is the apparent disappearance of Ramses who has failed to show up as directed and join his parents’ dig. The Crown has set the Emersons loose in Palestine to uncover a plot to destabilize the precarious peace among conflicting religions in the tinderbox of Jerusalem. Much more than the discovery of new artifacts is at stake. Things get complicated before the expedition sets one foot out of England.

Elizabeth Peters delivers her razor-sharp, contentious, funny and historically-lavish typical Amelia Peabody mystery. The repartee between the Emersons is quick and clever. The plots and subplots twist into a satisfying tangle. You can’t entirely guess at the resolution but you are happy to be led to it, enjoying the adventure along the way. There are no false notes in these stories. The times, the trickery and the players all make sense in a believable world. My only regret was the absence of De Cat Bastet and that wicked little boy who bedevils everyone and saves the day hilariously in earlier books.

A River in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense   Elizabeth Peters | HarperCollins   2010

The Fire Starter Sessions – Danielle LaPorte

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Danielle LaPorte crams a lot of type into The Fire Starter Sessions—bold black large fonts and tiny san serif and some red, italic and gray here and there for emphasis. It’s as visual as it is legible. The messages are hard to ignore—which is the point. TFSS is a wake-up call from a Type-A, high-enthusiasm, self-help guru who believes that balance is overrated and doing what you say you’re going to do is the secret of success.

LaPorte is pithy, funny, hip, direct and wise. She’s produced a caffeine-jolt of a book that stuffs you in the mouth of the cannon, aims it at a Really Big Goal and lights the fuse. Since death is inevitable, LaPorte writes, your only intelligent choice is to live your passion—and then she tells you how to do it. Part attitude, part tunnel vision and part divine inspiration will start a business, achieve enlightenment, capture the heart of Rhett Butler, sail you through medical school, raise joyful kids, compose a symphony, invent the next technology after Apple.

All the clever turns of phrase, colloquialisms, cussing and conniving keep the pages moving and the message coming. No slacking, no drudgery, no fuzzy thinking, no selling yourself short. First define your self because, like it or not, you are a brand. Know thyself—and really take some time to find out what floats your boat and which is your favorite flavor. Get spiritual—not all tangled up in religion–uncluttered by meditation, yoga, tree-hugging, journal-keeping, making time and room to just be so the creative ideas will arrive in that cleared space.  

TFSS is crammed with suggestions for positive thinking, from post-it notes with one-word reminders to ditching the daily planner and immersing yourself in the flow. Pick your heroes, Gandhi and Lady GaGa, and write down four of their traits you admire—then acquire those traits. Make art that feels good—why would anyone want evidence of your enforced industry? It will have struggle written all over it and you won’t have had any fun. Remember that inevitability thing about death? Don’t waste your life.

Starting fires looks like your best and only choice as you devour big chunks of this book. It is served up in big chunks, so you won’t be perusing it sedately. From the flaming red cover to the pyromaniacal advice inside, The Fire Starter Sessions will incite you to blaze a new trail through the weedy dullness of your days, embrace your most combustible ideas, prioritize what is sacred to you, and shine.

The Fire Starter Sessions: A Soulful + Practical Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms   Danielle LaPorte | Crown  2012

In the Night Kitchen – Maurice Sendak

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Where the Wild Things Are is the mirror of everybody’s bed-with-no-supper childhood wickedness. It is a classic experience captured in a classic book. But Maurice Sendak was a wild child who never grew up and a darker and funnier book, no less magnetic to children, is his In the Night Kitchen. It was a favorite read-aloud of ours with its marvelous art, explicitly naked Mickey who fell out of his PJs and into the batter in the kitchen when the rest of the household was sleeping, the giant milk bottle, and the prop plane made of cake dough.

In truth, the text is a bit druggy—it doesn’t actually make sense but who cares? Mickey is a fantastical hero from Olympus; it’s his dream so he can do whatever he likes. And he does. The bakers rely on him for a crucial missing ingredient, so Mickey flies over the Milky Way and braves some spectacular diving to bring back milk for the morning cake.

In the Night Kitchen is wacky, wonderful, incantatory and impossible, just the sort of thing that would appeal to the warped humor beloved of children and their free-spirited grown-ups. God bless the milk and God bless Mickey—and God bless Maurice Sendak, wherever he is, inspired fiend of kiddie lit. Thanks to Maurice–and Mickey–we have cake every morning.

In the Night Kitchen (Caldecott Collection)   Maurice Sendak | Harper Collins 25th Anniversary Edition

The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. – Carole DeSanti

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Eugénie Rigault is a goose girl, grown up but not reconciled to life in the foie gras countryside. In France, in the late eighteenth century, a girl who follows her dreams and her lover to Paris, believing that she can remake herself merely by stepping on a train, is bound to be quickly disillusioned. The lover from a prominent family abandons her, alone and pregnant. The artist for whom she models leaves her at the mercy of merciless landlords and the streets. The whorehouse where she winds up hands her an herbal potion to abort the child—and she pours it in a potted palm.

Carole DeSanti’s The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is silk brocade, gleaming in the candlelight, and the silken luxury of real chocolate in a tart. And it’s the unspeakable isolation of giving birth alone in a shabby room, of a diseased customer breaking ribs and beating hope out of a young woman with milky breasts and a feverish infant. It is artistic notoriety, loyal women friends in the back streets of Paris, rampant duplicity and greed, callous lovers, corrupt bureaucracies and betrayals. Eugénie keeps trying to remake her world to match her dreams and that world is carved up and ripped away from her without warning time and time again.

The baby, Berthe, goes to a foundling home that is no better than a prison and from which Eugénie never stops trying to ransom her. The lovers, patrons, courts and house madams are a backdrop of misery that seduces, uses and controls. Through it all, the young women pour themselves into survival and schemes for self-determination and independence. One wealthy Confederate expat lover keeps Eugénie in style so her presence will conceal his homosexuality. The end of the Civil War abruptly ends his Paris exile and her comfortable life. Another lover paints a portrait of her that wins a salon prize and achieves a level of fame. “An Unknown Girl” is the name of the painting and it might be a stand-in for the model herself. Eugénie’s life is something unknown to her. She sees her motives only after she has paid the penalties for them. She spends a decade trying to reclaim her child and reconcile her sense of self with her reality.

The Siege of Paris is an unavoidable factor in the lives of women who live at the edge of society and ruin. Eugénie is forced to sort the lies and treacheries and find a price she can pay to survive. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the tempestuous story of a mesmerizing heroine who seems real and remarkably contemporary in our own conflicted and chauvinistic times. Really good read, lovely prose, compelling protagonist and great story. When an author gets fiction right it is such a gift to a reader. DeSanti has been generous with this one.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.     Carole DeSanti | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

The Water Children – Anne Berry

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Anne Berry slips into a dream-saturated current with light glinting on the surface and blackness in its depths in The Water Children. The story gathers the childhood traumas of four children: Catherine, who nearly drowns with her favorite cousin when they break through the ice in a country pond; Owen, whose four-year-old sister slips beneath the waves and drowns when he is meant to be watching her; Sean, who teaches himself to swim in the River Shannon, a forbidden pleasure; and Naomi, whose abusive childhood twisted her into a murderous mad creature named Mara–a Gollum who lives to destroy and kill—and who cleanses herself in the sea.

We see each life unfold as the possibility to be loved, to be seen, seeps away and the water-linked damage begins to dictate their young adult choices. Ultimately those lives intersect, as tangled as storm-tossed seaweed. The heightening sense of foreboding is studded with violence—a murder at a rock festival, a moneylender’s thugs delivering threats, slashed wrists, plenty of wreckage. The characters most like the Prince and Princess are the ones we root for—a naïve but well-meaning boy and girl who are caught up in the dramas of the darker, more destructive players the moment they try to change their fate. The two are fair, attractive, middle class, somewhat innocent, both victims who try to do the right thing. I think that’s an unconscious failing of the novel. There are the damned and the delivered and that set-up seems heavy-handed.

This story wallows in sordid encounters, treacherous crash pads, failed relationships—a lot of those—and pure menace. You want to shout, “Go back!” any number of times at the hapless actors. Mercifully, at least a few of them survive. Then it’s off to happily ever after time at the seashore—a relief but an unexpected one. Things might just as easily have continued the way they were heading: no one saved; all souls dashed against the rocks.

The Water Children is a tale well-enough told and never strays from its poetic metaphor, despite the appalling plot developments that do ratchet up tension. I would read it, ideally, when life was humming along just fine and a sunny, unscheduled afternoon in a chaise longue beckoned. It’s a bit grim for the severity of daily life, despite the fairytale ending.

The Water Children   Anne Berry | Simon & Schuster  2011

Tutankhamen – Joyce Tyldesley

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Tutankhamen’s grave, in the Valley of the Kings, nearly went undiscovered. The Egyptologist who held the sole concession to excavate there for twelve years declared he had found a dusty tomb that was Tut’s final resting place and that it had long ago been emptied of artifacts and mummy. But when Lord Carnarvon and his hired archaeologist, Howard Carter, succeeded in grabbing the concession, they sifted the clues of those who worked the site before them and homed in on a likely spot.

Joyce Tyldesley writes a detailed adventure story of the hunt for King Tut’s remains and the painstaking process of recovering them in Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King. Your brain will get a rigorous workout keeping track of all the permutations of Nefertiti, Amenhotep, Tutankhamen, Tutankhaten, Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Ankesenamen and the rest of the royal band but your sense of story will be satisfied.

It’s a good story—even if many of the specifics remain elusive and a general disregard for fastidious archaeology was widespread at the time. The time is the turn of the last century when Britannia ruled and the expeditionary hobbies of the wealthy led to digging up deserts and plundering the ancient heritage of less prosperous lands. Egypt, with its tourist-friendly pyramids and legends of pharoah gold, was fertile pickings but the Tutankhamen discovery was blessed with a patron and an archaeologist who went to extraordinary lengths to protect their finds.

And they were blessed with the richest trove and most intact royal burial chamber to be unearthed in the often-plundered valley. Tut’s chambers were buried by flash floods that dumped sand and debris over tomb entrances and filled the long passages to reach them. Even so, the tomb had been breached several times before it was buried under the sands. Yet, when Carter and Carnarvon cautiously poked a torch into a small opening and saw the gold glinting in the gloom, they knew they had hit the jackpot.

The discovery and the recovery of the artifacts and the human remains of a king who reigned for ten years and died at about age eighteen continues to fascinate historians, archaeologists and the public. There was so much in the chambers that the information about Egyptian civilization yielded up by textiles, paintings, carving, sculpture, jewelry, gold, funerary objects and every scintilla of matter taken from the tomb is still being revealed. How did Tut die? Was he murdered? Who were his parents? Did he have children? Why are objects with the names of other kings included in his grave swag? Why were some of the earlier names on gold bands and caskets obliterated and Tut’s cartouche substituted? Were the children’s clothes found in the tomb those of the eight-year-old boy king? What would the world of the pharaohs have been like had he lived longer? Are some of the items left among the ceremonial offerings sentimental? Who mourned Tut? Was there really a Mummy’s Curse–or just an excess of bat guano?

The sheer beauty of the golden death mask and the carved and etched caskets and ornaments in the grave capture the imagination. Tutankhamen has that necessary ingredient for any lasting celebrity—extraordinary good looks. The images we have, in museums and exhibitions, make us stop and look again. The book about how those images came to see the light is an absorbing tale that sorts the obvious fictions from the facts we know—and leaves interesting questions unanswered to be excavated by advances in science tomorrow.

Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King   Joyce Tyldesley | Basic Books   2012

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell

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Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids was a disappointment. The story wanders around the apartments in one building in a neighborhood outside central London—the novel is half-over before anyone dies and you don’t much care when they do. The flats are occupied by a motley bunch of losers, students, suicidal alcoholics, pedophiles, hapless naifs and hippies way past their primes. (Sigh.)

The intrigue isn’t very intriguing, the crimes are pedestrian and sort of grimy—murder excepted. But the main victim fails to elicit much sympathy, the second corpse has already taken too long to die by the time it’s toes-up, much about the lives of the inhabitants is sordid or just relentlessly banal. None of the large cast seems to have much future—or much present, for that matter.

I was bored. But I did learn something–I figured out why some books work for me and some don’t, even in the same genre and even when the authors are well-regarded. When I don’t like a book it is often because the characters are unappealing, do stupid things that will cause them foreseeable problems and don’t have anything I would find interesting to look forward to. I just can’t care about dull-witted characters. Personal failure of imagination, no doubt.

So, Ruth Rendell may be a genius of crime novels but Tigerlily’s Orchids had no orchids, no Tigerlily, a flaccid plot and a double-decker busload of forgettable people. I’ve read books that are really bad and this wasn’t one. But I wouldn’t have pushed through it if I’d had time to crack another novel and finish by day’s end.   

Tigerlily’s Orchids: A Novel   Ruth Rendell | Scribner   2011

Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Cheryl Strayed

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Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a bit like Eat, Pray, Love with blisters and body odor—only Strayed’s account reads more like the story of a real adventure and less like a clever marketing ploy. The author’s life doesn’t so much fall apart as she torpedoes it—the unexpected death of her mother scatters her small family and sends Strayed out exploring one-night stands, casual hook-ups and drugs until her marriage collapses under the strain. A spontaneous decision, at age 26, to hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail up the mountain spines of California to Oregon—Mojave Desert to Portland—launches her on a different kind of quest, one to salvage and make sense of her life.

An inexperienced hiker, ill-prepared, with the wrong size boots, a pack that weighs almost as much as she does, no money and some pie-eyed idea of what it means to confront nature on its own terms is a poor risk for a rough trail with few amenities. Strayed encounters bears, rattlesnakes, kind and creepy strangers, impassable high-mountain snow, blazing heat, constant hunger, thirst, missing supply packs, relentless pain, unbroken solitude and killer views for eleven hundred miles. She wrestles with a sense of loss so profound it possesses her like a shade and uses the daily severity of the challenge to scour her soul.

It takes most of the trail to exorcise her demons. We learn about her impoverished and itinerate childhood, the mother who spun a strong web of safety around her three children, the father who abused and abandoned them. She goes into excruciating detail about her mother’s death from cancer and her profound inability to deal with it. A hardscrabble life gave her some attitudes useful for coping with deprivation but few skills for months of solo hiking.

I found Strayed’s lack of sound planning and ridiculous amount of gear exasperating but her seduction by the solitude and her surroundings convincing. She survived with nothing more serious happening than the loss of a few toenails and that is down to luck as much as optimism. At times, the powerful lure of her single preoccupation, uninterrupted by the normal cares of daily living and uncontaminated by too much civilization, inspires pure envy. But walking on battered feet with a too-heavy pack day after day is just walking. It’s mile after boring mile as a journal entry. If you aren’t attacked by a flash flood or a rare albino tiger, your story doesn’t offer up a whole lot of excitement.

To Strayed’s credit, and doubtless with some help from good editing, the adventure keeps up a decent pace and there are peaks to offset inevitable slumps in narrative. Wild is flying off the shelves and getting a lot of attention so the reading public must be starved for pursuits out of the ordinary. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an adventure that encompasses a lot of dull hours and some degree of privation. It’s an odd kind of self-help program although not really all that wild. But I thought it was an okay book and it will likely make a decent movie—even if the hiker never quite reaches the status of heroine as she slogs along with a condom and some 2nd Skin blister pads in her first aid kit and a giant orange whistle to scare away bogeymen and bears.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail   Cheryl Strayed | Alfred A. Knopf   2012