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Famous or Infamous?

FamousWomenDoes your bookclub select reading material based on a theme? Mine does on occasion and now I think we should have picked this gem to honor International Women’s Day (March 8th). The book I’m taking about is Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. This volume contains a collection of stories about women who may have been more infamous than famous or were condemned to hide their talents in the shadow of their more famous relatives.

Bergman expertly takes us into the lives of women such as Standard Oil heiress “Joe” Carstairs, a cross-dressing speed boat racer and master of her own island; Allegra, the cast-off willful, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron; “Tiny” Davis, an outspoken jazz trumpeter and vocalist in the first mixed-race female swing band touring the Jim Crow south; Butterfly McQueen, the maid in Gone With the Wind who wants to leave her body to science; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s equally talented and fiercely loyal sister, Norma, just to name a few. Bergman gives us a glimpse into their lives, usually not in their voice, but through the observations of a close friend, loved one, or care-giver, which provides a unique view. The vignettes range in length from a lengthy short story to just a few pages, but each is packed with heartbreaking detail and insight.

Some of the stories feel complete, some feel as if we were allowed a peek through a window for just a moment in their lives. Each one, however, sent me running to the computer to read much more about these fascinating and tragic women.

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The Hidden World of Women as Told by a Man

MidwifeCoverThe Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas is the story of a seventeenth century gentlewoman, Bridget Hodgson, played out against the backdrop of York, England, during the siege in 1644. Even in a city under bombardment and swarming with hostile soldiers, she carries out her honor-bound duties as a midwife, helping the destitute as well as the wealthy to be delivered from their labor. The descriptions of the customs and medicine surrounding the then mysteries of childbirth were fascinating, but the story goes beyond this cultural history–it is wrapped around a mystery. Lady Hodgson’s friend is accused of murdering her husband with poison and is hastily sentenced to burn after a sham trial. Bridget, convinced of her friend’s innocence, sets out to find the real murderer. To this end, she joins up with a feisty servant girl, Martha Hawkins, who mysteriously turned up on her doorstep and also has a rather shady past. Along the way, we are treated to wonderful descriptions of that era’s taverns and prisons as well as the fine homes and luxuries. Author Thomas weaves in a good dose of the political backdrop of that time as well. Although the mystery was compelling and following Bridget through her investigations which led us from infanticide to drunken labor rooms, all full of interesting places and characters, the plot felt rushed at the end when it was all wrapped up with a long eleventh hour “confession” and re-cap. I also found the very casual relationship between a Lady and her newly acquired servant girl unbelievable at times, but they make a dynamic investigatory team. Would I read another historical mystery by Thomas? Yes. I also found it interesting that a university history professor would choose a woman confined to a female-dominated world by virtue of her profession to be his main character.  I felt he provided an even-handed portrayal of women–weak and strong, evil and magnanimous, and everything in between.

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Female Icons of the ’20’s and ’30’s

Fallen Beauty by E. Roebuck

Fallen Beauty by E. Roebuck

I recently picked up a copy of Erika Robuck’s novel FALLEN BEAUTY, featuring a fictionalized account of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s encounter with a local seamstress, while she was writing her sonnets at Steepletop. Author Robuck’s earlier novels HEMINGWAY’S GIRL and CALL ME ZELDA clearly point to her love of strong and intriguing women of the ’20’s and ’30’s. Who can blame her?  Although I have not read her other novels, BEAUTY has at least prompted my interest enough to delve more deeply into the works and biography of Millay and finally read the definitive biography on her, SAVAGE BEAUTY by Nancy Milford.

Robuck’s imagined Millay is at times repulsive and at others endearing and sympathetic. She captures the capricious nature of the poet along with her extremes of passion. The Millay character, based on what I assume is exhaustive research, plays against the character of a local seamstress, Laura Kelley, who has been left to raise her illegitimate daughter alone, abandoned by a cowardly lover in a small-minded town. The story alternates between the lives and view points of these two different women, until circumstances push them together as Laura secretly creates sumptuous costumes for Millay’s readings.

The book description tells us each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman and what price she is willing to pay to live a full life.  I see that in the character of Laura, but not so much with Millay. In fact, in the end, the Millay character rather falls off the stage of the novel for a while as Laura Kelley finds new love and confronts old enemies.  Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that all of the women in it (Laura and her sister, Marie; Laura’s nemesis Agnes; Millay) were emotionally overwrought all of the time to the point that I found some scenes quite hard to believe and exhausting. The work also transformed from a fictionalized account and exploration of Millay to a sort of romance novel half way through and to the end.

Roebuck created a richly imagined small town populated with a variety of characters and a situation not dissimilar from The Scarlet Letter and then inserted the bohemian lifestyle of Millay as counterpoint. It is a worthy concept to explore, but I’m not sure it was fully developed.

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Another Maine Wilderness Mystery

PercipicecoverI’m a fan of mystery writer Paul Doiron and feel as if I discovered him (after all, I was one of the first to read his Edgar Award finalist novel The Poacher’s Son and recommend it to my mystery loving friends.) His latest work, The Precipice, takes us to the Hundred Mile Wilderness area of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Two young women have gone missing, so heroic game warden Mike Bowditch is called in to help with Search and Rescue, interrupting a romantic vacation planned with his new girlfriend, wildlife biologist, Stacey Stevens. During the search, Bowditch is teamed up with a legendary AT hiker “Nonstop” Nissen, who is fit but misantrhopic volunteer with a shady past. When the girls fail to turn up, it looks more and more doubtful they will be found alive. Meanwhile, those who encountered the girls along the trail are telling stories with varying degrees of relation to the truth. Tensions mount when their bodies are found at the bottom of a precipice, torn apart by wild coyotes. The townspeople and hikers spin out of control in a witch hunt to eradicate the coyotes, but meanwhile, Bowditch has his hunch it was human, not canine, that caused their deaths. The book comes to an exciting man hunt conclusion, rife with backwoods violence.

What I particularly enjoy in all of Doiron’s novels is the wild and terrible beauty of backwoods Maine. He paints a realistic scene of both the poverty, ignorance and squalor along with the natural landscape and breathtaking wilderness. The beauty of nature is often juxtaposed with the ugliness of life. In this story, his description of the life and culture of the Appalachian Trial day and thru-hikers is fascinating and a colorful backdrop. His treatment of the life of a game warden is handled well, especially when describing the frustration of working with FBI, local police and sheriff’s office during an investigation, illustrating the limitations of his powers. This story kept me guessing to the end (and not wanting to reveal any spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) I did not, however, feel as if the motivation for the perp was sufficiently explored. Also, Doiron has his fun with several misguided preachers in the story, casting them in a very poor light. Some of the tale hinges on the possible motive of a hate crime, when it is revealed that the “Bible student” girls were secretly lesbians. This part of the story feels a bit artificial and forced in order to play against the moral certitudes of these two-dimensional self righteous preachers. Another thing I felt was missing from the end of the story was the reaction of the parents. The girls both have powerful parents who fly into Maine to oversee the search efforts. We get a glimpse of them with the impression they will continue to cause problems for law enforcement, especially when it is revealed that the girls were a couple, but then they drop from the picture.  Lastly, I did not enjoy the character of Stacey, Bowditch’s new love interest. I felt she was unnecessarily erratic, cold to the point of being cruel at times, and generally unloveable. It was hard to believe he would see anything in her.

Overall, as always, Doiron delivered a great story sprinkled through with beautiful descriptions of the Maine landscape.

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Magical Old World Meet New in NYC

GolemJust finished The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Although you cannot fault her prose, I can’t help feeling as if the story would have been much better if it had been cut down by a hundred pages. The novel tracks the intersecting lives of two mythological creatures–the Golem of Hebrew lore and the Jinni from the Arabian tradition–but takes 484 pages to tell the story of these two main characters, their struggles, their saviors, their enemies, and friends along with the backstory of each and every one of these secondary characters. There is a lot going on here.  I felt as if the plot did not really get going until page 300 when a crisis erupts which sets everything spinning. What kept me hanging on through the story up until this point was the beauty of Wecker’s descriptions of turn of the century New York and the magical worlds she creates. Her descriptions employ all the senses so that a reader feels she has travelled the desserts with the caravans, meandered along the streets of The Bowry at night, and worked alongside the Golem, Chava, at the bakery. Unfortunately for this reader, I somehow felt let down at the end of this tome, as if the conclusion did not live up to the build-up of almost 500 pages. Still, I would read another of Wecker’s works.

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The Gray Ghost

covergrayghostWilliam G. Tapply’s novel Gray Ghost is a quiet meditation on the art of living simply, wrapped in a very simple mystery package. The Stoney Calhoun character is a fellow who just wants to live in his cabin in the woods with only his dog as company (with the exception of an occasional visit from his lady friend) and guide fishing trips in the waters around his home in Maine. The funny thing is, Calhoun knows how to do things like examine a witness or thwart an attacker–skills he has no idea how he came by because he lost all memory after a lightening attack several years ago. Someone else in very keen to find out what he knows–a mysterious visitor known only as The Man in the Suit. He probes and grills Calhoun to determine if he has remembered anything significant. Against this backdrop, the charred remains of a mutilated man is discovered on Quarantine Island–a small smudge of land with a haunted past. Calhoun, against his will, is dragged into the investigation. Eventually, the danger lands on his doorstep, literally. The murder mystery plot is not overly complicated because the beauty of this book is the description of Calhoun’s simple life and struggle to keep it that way amidst modern demands and complicated relationships. The description of nature and the author’s deep understanding of fly fishing adds interest and atmosphere. It is a quiet read with some disturbing twists and turns. The Gray Ghost of the title refers to both a fly fishing lure and a reference to the nuns who haunt Quarantine Island.

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Too Much Left in the Mist

MistThe gothic tale The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill, author of The Woman is Black, starts out promising but leaves the reader stranded. It is the tale of an Englishman, Sir James Monmouth, who has travelled the globe in the footsteps of his hero–an adventurer named Conrad Vane.  The author trots out the usual satisfying tropes of the genre–the barren English countryside, the haunted boys’ school, the gilded manor house at Christmastide–which is richly described and a satisfying backdrop as Monmouth journeys to uncover the truth about Vane.  Along the way, he encounters a ghostlike boy, crying in the night, disappearing doorways, a gypsy woman and misty images in the mirror–not to mention everyone he meets tells him to abandon his pursuit, but will not say why.  After all the 200 plus pages of build-up, Sir James finally uncovers an aged relative living in the ancestral home, which has some connection with Vane.  But despite all the warnings, the ghosts, the mysterious hallucinations, author Susan Hill just ends the story without much of an explanation for any of them (don’t want to spoil it for readers).  Hill certainly has the voice down perfectly for this genre and ability to transport the reader back to another time, but the plot was weak and inconsistent.

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The Impersonator – A Mystery

ImpersonatorWho doesn’t love a tale of secret identities, impersonators of kings or heiresses, or body-doubles.  Mary Miley in her “First Crime Novel” award winning story, The Impersonator, gives us just that.  It is the tale of a down-and-out vaudeville actress who is approached by an unscrupulous uncle to take on the identity of his niece, the heiress Jessie Carr, who mysteriously disappeared seven years ago.  If actress Leah Randall can convince Jessie Carr’s family that it is she, Jessie, who has returned, she stands to inherit a fortune on her upcoming twenty-first birthday.  Leah/Jessie wins over the family–all but cousin Henry–who is the one who knows Jessie’s true fate.  The tale is told through Leah’s eyes as she likens the challenge to the greatest acting role of her life, but with life-and-death stakes if she fails.  The backdrop of events is early 1920’s Oregon in a world of Prohibition, bootleggers, jazz age costumes, and larger than life stars of vaudeville.  It’s a good tale despite seeing some of the twists and turns coming down the road beforehand, and will keep a reader engaged to the end in order to see if Leah/Jessie pulls it off.  The narrative voice of Leah is fun, if somewhat unbelievable.  The story sometimes drags a bit when the author puts all she’s learned about the era into the mouth of a character for a long exposition on a topic, but it is forgivable.  Miley has done her homework on the vaudeville era of the early ’20’s (but I did catch a few phrases that were not likely used at that time.)  The ending is very dramatic (no spoilers) and reads more like a romantic thriller perhaps, than a murder mystery.  Miley has followed up with a second novel out this year which continues this character’s story called “Silent Murders,” focusing on the silent movie era.

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Cuckoo’s Calling Character- Not Plot-driven Mystery

cuckooRobert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowlings) mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the apparent suicide of a troubled super-model who falls to her death from her posh apartment balcony.  Only her half-brother believes it was not suicide and hires down-on-his luck private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.  Cormoran has no shortage of troubles of his own–just tossed out of his home by his fiancé, his business failing and in debt, and health in crisis, he takes on the case not quite believing it wasn’t indeed a suicide.  He soon starts to have his doubts.  Cormoran’s investigation is aided by a “temp agency” gal who shows up and stays long after her contract, drawn by the excitement of the detective work and maybe just a bit by Cormoran himself.  The novel’s plot is very slow and consists mostly of the investigator interviewing various family members and friends in an attempt to piece together the model’s last day alive before her death.  It is full of wonderful prose and vivid descriptions from  the worlds of high-fashion to that of drug rehab programs.  Galbraith has a talent for painting a vivid picture of these people (most of whom were quite unlikeable) and surroundings, for example, she described the mouth of a wrinkled, aged woman sucking on a cigarette to the anus of a cat.  Try to forget that image.  For what it lacks in compelling plot twists it makes up for in interesting heros.  Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of an aging rock star, Iraq war veteran, amputee, and large hairy man comes to life as a sympathetic and believable character.  His temp gal, Robin Ellacott, plays well off his character and we soon suspect that she is attracted to the big lug (even though she’s engaged), which lends the novel a bit of romantic tension.  After all, who wouldn’t fall for a homeless, one-legged, big hairy failure of a private eye?  Galbraith makes it work.  All in all I would say that I finished the impressive 456 pages of the story not so much for the solution to the mystery, but just to see how Cormoran makes out.

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We Were Liars

LiarsThe newest YA novel by E. Lockhart, We Were Liars, follows the narrative of a young girl, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, from a privileged family who spends every summer on a private island off of Massachusetts with her cousins and one very special boy.  The summer of her fifteenth year something terrible happens which leaves her with memory loss, debilitating headaches, and the urge to give away all her possessions.  Returning to the island for a brief stay two years later, she tries to uncover what happened. (None of the family members will talk about it.)  Through her scattered and unreliable recollections, we piece together the image of a highly dysfunctional family torn apart by greed, prejudice, jealousy. The perfect veneer of the powerful Sinclair family is ripped away to reveal their true poverty of spirit, Cadence included.  The horrible accident which occurred the fifteenth year is the culmination of Cadence’s attempt to right her perception of the wrongs.  The author, Lockhart, does an interesting job using the voice of her main character in an almost poetic narrative prose to describe the people and events.  She does an outstanding job giving us glimpses and hints as to the character of the adults in the book, whereas the portrayal of the teenaged friends/cousins is less subtle.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels too forced and precocious for the voice of the young teen.  Overall, the book was very readable, the story engaging (although I did figure out the twist miles before the big reveal), but I would say the ending is unsatisfactory.  It goes out with a little puff after such emotional fireworks that precedes it.

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