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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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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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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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Trespasser

trespasserPaul Doiron, author of The Poacher’s Son, has penned a series of books featuring Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch.  His strength as an author lies in his characterization of the people and landscape of Maine, imbuing his stories with a strong sense of place.  I have always been a sucker for stories that do this well.  Doiron has created a likable main character in the person of Bowditch–an honest man with a very troubled past.  When he makes his bad decisions–which he often does–we as readers are right along with him for the ride.  In this story, Mike is obsessed with the disappearance of a girl from the scene of an accident, only to turn up later as the victim of a grisly murder.  Mike Bowditch blames himself for not pursuing the missing girl and while conducting his own non-official investigation, runs afoul of the police, public officials, and many others (including his live-in girlfriend).  Author Doiron’s portrayal of the brutal poverty of Maine juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the landscape is what keeps me coming back to his stories.  The plot in this one, however, lacked something and the big reveal of the murderer at the end felt motiveless and flat.  That being said, still would pick up one of his novels for an entertaining read.

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Gone Girl Shoulda Stayed Gone

I’ve bowed to popular culture and picked up Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I won’t say much because by this time everyone has probably already read it and formed their opinions. In the past, I’ve read and enjoyed Flynn’s other works of psychological suspense, and after all the ballyhoo over this newest one, was prepared for a real thrill ride.  Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed.  I don’t like to write bad reviews (although I think Flynn’s success can ride out my few, negative comments) but there is not much positive I can say about this novel.  It starts out strong: Amy Dunne, on her fifth wedding anniversary to husband Nick, has gone missing and all evidence suggested she was forcefully abducted.  As the story unfolds, the author peels the onion and gives us a glimpse of a marriage on the verge of collapse.  Suspicions shift and we are kept guessing whether husband, Nick, is perhaps a monster in disguise.  That’s the good part.  The bad part is that every single character in the story is intensely unlikeable.  Nick and Amy are self-absorbed, narcissistic, irresponsible, childish, violent and weak. I found I didn’t care whether Amy was dead, whether Nick killed her, and at some point almost hoped he had.  The story has some surprising twists, but after one or two the reader starts thinking, “Oh, come on now!  I can’t buy this.”  The plot, after a rather dull and sagging portion in the middle, becomes more absurd as it hurdles towards the conclusion.  I, unlike others, didn’t mind how it ended.  I was just glad it was over.

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Dying for One’s Convictions

FrankieSAuthor Sharyn McCrumb’s novel “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” is a masterful fictionalized account of the murder investigation and trial of the first woman hung by the state of North Carolina in 1833. More than just a fictionalized history, it is also a psychological thriller and social commentary on what forces were at work at the time that would prompt a seventeen-year-old mountain girl to murder her husband with an axe and then attempt to dispose of the body by chopping it up and burning it.  McCrumb intersperses the tale of Frankie Silver with a modern day imagined account of a local sheriff who is haunted by the impending execution of an accused murder who the sheriff arrested and provided evidence for his conviction over twenty years ago.  The sheriff, called on the be a state’s witness to the execution, is finding striking similarities between the more than one hundred year old case of Mrs Silver and the man who was now on death row.  McCrumb’s portrayal of the social and status divisions between the mountain folk and townspeople in both centuries is a stark, revealing and  charges that justice is served only to those who have social standing and resources.  Her research into the case of Frankie Silver was prodigious , no doubt, based on the bibliography and detailed scenes of the legal twists and turns of the case.  This portion of the story, however, could have been cut back somewhat for the sake of good story telling, but I suspect the author felt compelled to faithfully include everything she had learned about the case.  McCrumb’s strength as a writer comes through in her description of the mountain settings, her ability to draw the inner thoughts of characters to the point that a reader may sympathize with a criminal, and in her talent for spinning an old-fashioned good tale.

McCrumb is also the author of “She Walks These Hills,” “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter,” “The Songcatcher,” and other stories set in Appalachia.

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