Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.  Jennifer Kincheloe. Prometheus Books. November 2015. 375 pp.  ISBN#: 9781633880801.

In 2015 Los Angeles one can be as outrageous as one wants and everyone usually takes it all in stride.  However, in 1907 Los Angeles, a woman was allowed to marry, raise children and help out in local charities.  If that’s your cup of tea, read no further.  But if you’ve got a bit of an imp loving to try new things and be a little crazy, then you’re going to find Anna Blanc lives what you may dream.  In the beginning of her story, we see her eloping with a young man who says between having a lot of money and her spunk, he’ll be a happy man and they’ll be a happy couple.  Right?  Not quite!

After this debacle ends, rich Daddy pretty much imprisons Anna and hires a series of chaperones to monitor Anna’s every move when she leaves home.  But Anna is no wimp and finally makes a deal with one of those chaperones to exchange clothes and jewelry for six days. So what does Anna really want to do that she needs to do in secret?  Actually Anna is not only vain and a shopaholic but also has dreams of making a difference.  She wants to be like a friend who works in social service at a police station in L.A. but very, very few positions like this are open to the likes of Anna Blanc.  Turns out that she’s in the right place at the right time, especially after getting arrested for marching in a suffragette parade and smoking a cigarette in public.

No spoilers here – Anna is going to become involved in investigating the deaths of several young girls who have been coerced into prostitution out of terrible poverty.  At first she’s viewed as a bothersome liberal but little by little as she proceeds with ruthless determination she becomes a highly respected member of the police force.  In between those purposeful activities, however, Anna collects fianc├ęs but must wait for quite a while before she finds the one she can truly love, admire, and respect, someone who has got Anna’s back in a secret but protective role. 

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc seems very, very contrived but this novel is actually a delight coupled with some witty social satire, as well as good sleuth work.  Unusual, crafty and a very pleasant read, Jennifer Kincheloe

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

White Collar Girl: A Novel by Renee Rosen

White Collar Girl: A Novel.  Renee Rosen. Penguin Group (USA). November 2015. 448 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474971.

Jordan Walsh comes from a family of notable journalists but their interest in the business has died with the loss of their son and Jordan’s brother who died in a hit and run accident.  Their family has truly been broken by this loss; no one speaks about thoughts or feelings about Jordan’s brother and Jordan is practically invisible as far as attention goes.  Now she’s finally getting a break and about to start a job as a journalist who writes about women’s issues in a column known as “White Collar Girl.”  But Jordan has far greater aspirations than writing about how to dress, apply makeup, find a husband, etc.  She wants to write solid investigative news and is willing to do anything to make that happen. But little is Jordan prepared for the consequences of her choices, both professionally and personally.

Jordan begins to be fed information on political corruption for medical insurance fraud but instead of receiving accolades her notes are given to a male to write the copy on the story.  The next time she scoops a huge story about more corruption that causes a severe accident, she plays it differently.  Little by little we read about tension-riddled, dangerous events and situations in which Jordan becomes the investigator and the one who writes the story.  The Chicago political machine run by Mayor Richard J. Daly and other supporters is rife with crooked politics.  And some who consider Jordan friend are really the opposite which she will discover with intensely emotional chagrin.

Romance unexpectedly arises for Jordan but is challenged by competition and familial problems of a fellow journalist working for a rival newspaper.  Another friend who attempts to woo Jordan winds up in a precarious situation which he believes Jordan arranged; indeed she is accused of choosing betrayal and success in her job over a growing friendship and possibly more.

Toward the end of the story, Jordan begins to investigate a story that might have to do with the death of her brother.  By now her reputation precedes her and so few are ready to whisper secrets that may be catastrophic for professional and personal lives around the office.

White Collar Girl is well-plotted historical fiction (1950s Chicago) that is thrilling to read in Rosen’s easy and well-researched story.  The dangers seem vivid and the personal plights seem no less enjoyable, albeit somewhat contrived.  The reader gets to know Jordan so well that one feels her joys and pain and is rooting for her through every challenge.  It’s a rough road women traveled to obtain equal standing in journalism, as well as other careers, and Rosen depicts what it was in the early days of the struggle for equal treatment at work and respect.  Her writing gets better and better!  Wonderful story and highly recommended read!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Through the Narrows - Tomahawk and Saber - Volume 2 - by Nathanael Green and Evan Ronan

Through the Narrows – Tomahawk and Saber (Volume 2).  Nathanael Green and Evan Ronan. Calhoun Publishing. October 215. 226 pp.  ISBN#: 9780996495813.

Hugh Pike and Wolf Tongue are again working together on a task that seems to be riddled with mystery and betrayal.  Wolf Tongue is silently mourning the degradation of his Sussquehannock tribe, which has lost many to disease and most of the stronger men and women to union with other tribes.  However, now the tribe is being accused of attacking and murdering residents of Millers Town.  Pike’s superior, the General who seems to despise him and refuses to promote him even after years of commendable service, has ordered him to investigate the Millers Town debacle and report back in three days, an almost impossible task for sure.
When Pike and Wolf Tongue arrive at Millers Town, they are far from welcome and suspicion about their presence is fiercely spoken.  They meet the man who reported the Indian raids, a suspicious character named Dobs and a French woman who knows a great deal but says little initially. As a war with the French is clearly looming, her words are deemed questionable. 

An almost immediate attack by the Indians, composed of members of various tribes, including an enemy of Wolf Tongue, occurs and reveals the cause of their anger.  Pike is given an ultimatum to solve the cause or watch the massacre of the Millers Town residents.  As he’s clearly outnumbered, he realizes he must solve the mystery.
Through the Narrows is the second volume of this Colonial American series.  While the characters and scenes are somewhat loosely constructed as far as actual reality of the Pennsylvania conditions, they do reflect the problems and terrors that truly did exist as colonialists faced divided Indian tribes and the ever-present conflicts caused by the perpetual warlike state existing between France and England, with the Americans caught in the middle.  While colonial characters are rather stereotypical, he presentation of several points of view with respect to the native Indians is remarkable and interesting.

For those who love adventure, a mystery, and an interest in early American history, this series by Green and Ronan is a fascinating, intense and tension-packed story. Nicely crafted!

The Palest Ink by Kat Bratt

The Palest Ink.  Kay Bratt. Lake Union Publishing. October 2015. 416 pp.  ISBN#: 9781503946169.

Mao Tse-Tung is at a crossroads in China in the year 1966.  His original plan to increase agricultural output has been a disaster and stories about brutality, starvation and disease travel like lightning despite efforts to curtail dissension and negativity.  Three young Chinese students, Benfu, Pony Boy and Wen, are divided in their loyalty to Mao.  However, little by little, a transformation occurs in their devotion, an evolution in which they believe they must publish the abuses and brutalities being committed by Mao’s notorious Red Guard, a group of supporters who become Mao’s arm of accusation and compliance.  The latter discover they have power and they carry out that formidable opportunity with terror and death.  Benfu, Pony Bok and Wen carry out a plan to reveal this travesty of progress but the consequences will be phenomenal and costly.

Benfu is a talented violin player who comes from a distinguished family.  His mother is constantly monitoring his every move and her demands are almost paranoid in her efforts to preserve and guard the “family honor” and social status they have worked so hard to possess.  Benfu is becoming a man and so finds his mother’s efforts to control him unbearable.  His only consolation is the time he spends with his best friend, Pony Boy.

Tragedy worsens Pony Boy’s status as a poor young man.  When his father becomes ill, Pony Boy must work long, long hours just to allow his family to retain their home and have meager meals to survive.  Pony Boy after turning from an ardent Communist realizes Mao is repressing and brutalizing his people during the period when all high status Chinese people are being purged and reeducated.  Pony Boy and Benfu plan a publication that will expose all that is wrong with Mao’s plans and actual realities. 

Benfu and Pony Boy will fall in love with women they respect, independent, strong-minded women who are willing to testify to the travesties of justice now rampant throughout China.  Benfu is sent to escape to the country to escape the Red Guard’s investigations into wealthy families but that country journey is one of working on a collective farm in which self-criticism and judgment by others is a constant threat to life and limb.  Pony Boy continues their efforts while Benfu works and suffers.  Eventually their reunion will spark a final challenge that is breathtaking in its fierce challenge and involve some other very special characters.

The Palest Ink is a potent, beautiful story about resistance and loyalty to friend, family and foe the reader will find hard to forget.  Its insistence that the written word surpasses all memories proves significantly true about this particular, significant historical period.  The mission of serving as a witness to history is valuable beyond words and so succeeds beyond expectations.  Very nicely crafted, Kay Bratt!

Theodora: Actress, Empress and Saint by David Potter.

Theodora: Actress, Empress and Saint.  David Potter. Oxford University Press. November 2015.  288 pp.  ISBN#: 9780199740765.

Theodora, Empress and Great Love of Emperor Justinian in the early 500s, came from a family of circus performers which meant being actors and actresses.  She would later fall in love, follow this lover and later be abandoned by him.  Later as a secret agent she meets Justinian and they marry.  At first Theodora doesn’t realize she is marrying the heir to the throne but in true feisty style Theodora adjusts to the change and proves to be a very wise ruler, often controlling the kingdom while Justinian was obsessed with creating a new code of laws that would last forever. 

David Potter tells the story of Theodora by recounting the writings of historians famous in her lifetime.  This makes for some very ironic, suspicious and avid reading as the reader faces many accounts that were probably not true but which reveal a modicum of the truth amid the exaggerations and outright falsities. 

Procopius was one such writer who speculates that Theodora opened a home for former prostitutes because she was one in her younger years.  His accounts seem to place an unduly large amount of space denigrating her and at times reveal prurient texts and scenes that perhaps say more about him than the object of his writing.  Yes, she later opened a home for former prostitutes who would be able to learn a career that would not place them in so much danger.  Another writer treats her with exaggerated respect and his treatment almost seems like a biography of a different, wholly loved and honored historical ruler.

A large part of the book is concerned with the Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian factions concerned with interpreting the nature of Jesus Christ as fully divine or partly divine and partly human.  One can underestimate the rivalry between these two groups but in reality it was as intense as the Green, Blue and other factions which affected politics, religion and culture in Theodora’s younger years. Theodora had a great deal to do with lessening the conflicts and potential violence always waiting to explode. 

Although this is a biography of Theodora, it is also an explication of the culture and history of the Byzantine era.  The author introduces the reader to the layout of the city, the structure of the games so important to Byzantine citizens, the entertainment offered through the denigrated actors and actresses, the yearning of the poor to escape their rigidly set social structure, the faith that ruled the country and empire, and Theodora’s role in all of the aforementioned subjects as well as the chaos that was to emerge during her rule.

Honoring her and Justinian in the icons or mosaics of Byzantium seems right after reading this book in which fact and fiction reveal a dynamic, intelligent, and very smart woman who is featured as an honored saint to this day.  Well-researched, fascinating look at a remarkable woman!

Hidden: First in a New Mystery Series by Karen E. Olsen

Hidden: First in a New Mystery Series.  Karen E. Olsen. Severn House Publishers. November 2015. 224 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727885326.

Nicole Jones has been hiding on Block Island, off the New England Coast.  She runs a bike touring business during the tourist season and has only two good friends, a slightly older man, Steve McQueen, and friends who run a spa and sponsor Nicole’s paintings in a local gallery.  Life is good and Nicole’s no longer always looking over her shoulder.  Perhaps she was too comfortable but that’s all about to end!

Zeke Chapman and Nicole crash into each other.  At first the reader thinks it’s pure coincidence but it’s really not that simple.  Zeke first of all has assumed the name of an FBI agent.  His presence is as exciting to Nicole as it was when they were lovers in Paris, France.  For both of them are professional hackers.  Years ago they did something years ago that involved stealing a huge amount of cash and leaving behind someone who wasn’t supposed to die but did. As the story progresses we learn that Zeke has a job for Nicole to do, but after a while we’re not sure if Zeke is truly friend or foe.  The confusing but terrifying scenes raise the tension level a hundred-fold for sure.

Nicole doesn’t want to tell anybody her secrets but eventually winds up doing so as the friends she has made on the island truly care about her and don’t want to see her in this perilous condition.  Others arrive who were totally unexpected and it turns out that Nicole left a clue for certain persons to find her; whether it was an accident or just plain stupidity doesn’t really matter as she’s now in very serious trouble, with both her enemies and her friends.

Hidden… is the first in a new series that will thrill those who love mysteries, thrillers or adventure novels.  It’s a complex yet simple plot at the same time that is all too credible in this day and age when hacking is developing into an international problem that can shake the financial world of companies, individuals and even the government.  Reading it makes one realize no one’s bank account is really safe and the power behind hackers is more of a near threat than perhaps we previously thought.  Nicely done, Karen E. Olsen!

Heirs and Assigns by Marjorie Eccles

Heirs and Assigns: A New British Country House Murder Mystery Series (Herbert Reardon Historical Mysteries). Marjorie Eccles. Severn House. November 2015. 224 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727885286.

Penrose Llewellyn has called his clan together for his 60th birthday in November 1928.  Since he’s recently suffered from a heart ailment, everyone in his family feels obligated to attend.  From the very beginning, the reader realizes this is a family not quite happy to be together.  Pen seems like a loving relative, but there’s an edge to his relationship with his brothers, Theo and Huwie, the latter who has been absent for years.  Theo is a successful lawyer and a rare book collector of books about music.  He and his haughty wife Claudia live well above their means but Theo is close to Pen and may be looking to inherit some wealth that is sorely needed.  Huwie seems like the black sheep of the family and others indicate he’s not to be trusted. The females in the family each have a bit of the wild side in them and clearly don’t get along, even the mother and daughter in the tale. There’s a close family doctor and some others who would like to marry into the clan but don’t seem able to accomplish their desires.

Imagine then the shock when Pen holds a family dinner before the big event and announces he will marry his garden designer, Anna.  The expectations for the family are now obviously diminished but even more so when Pen is found dead the next morning after the exciting family dinner. 

Herbert Reardon, a detective, is called into the case immediately.  He’s a shrewd character, physically scarred from the Great War, but no less loved by his sensible, liberal wife Ellen.  He sets about his investigation with the help of an assistant and becomes intrigued by the town’s antique bookseller from whom both Pen and Theo bought books for investment and love of old books.  The novel moves on rapidly with fascinating twists and turns and is totally unpredictable as who committed the dastardly deed.  Two other murders, one human and one canine, add to the mystery’s complexity.

Heirs and Assigns is a super historical mystery that is evenly paced, well-plotted, and contains just enough clues to sweep the reader to its very surprising end. It also adds some minor information about treatment of veterans from the War and those who refused to fight in the war, as well as the women’s reform movement for equality in that time.  Descriptions of the homes, shops, cooking, etc. abound realistically, including the great love for tea and some classic British meals.  Highly recommended for those who love a good mystery and a touch of Downton Abbey in between the puzzling and satisfying investigations.