Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Dollhouse: A Novel by Fiona Davis

The Dollhouse: A Novel. Fiona Davis. Penguin Publishing Group. July 2017. 368 pp. ISBN #: 97811.1985014.

The Barbizon Hotel for Women in the early 1050’s is a temporary residence for many single women who later became famous stars such as Sylvia Plath, Liza Minelli and more notable ladies. 

At the time when our story opens, Darby is a single woman who has left her nasty mother and stepfather to make a life for herself by studying in a secretarial school.  She’s given a room on a floor with other women studying to be models and they’re catty young women who intimidate Darby.  But little by little, after some harrowing experiences including a blind date that goes awry, new opportunities arise that change Darby’s entire world.  

The scene changes to the present day, when the character Rose has a boyfriend who decides he must dump Rose to go back to his ex-wife and his troubled daughter.  Add to that the fact that Rose’s father has had to be put in a special home because of his advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  She’s working in a news magazine, “Wordmerge,” as a secretary; it’s a company that hasn’t completely decided what it wants to be.  For Rose, that changes when she begins to learn more about the women who have lived in the Barbizon Hotel and its history, including why it’s known as “The Dollhouse.”  It’s a mysterious tale in the 1950s that involved an attack that totally disfigured the face of one woman and resulted in the horrifying death of another. 

This intriguing novel describes the simple account of Darby studying in a secretarial school she hates and Esme a maid who sings nights in a famous jazz club in Manhattan, the Flatted Fifth. It’s where Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and other jazz masters developed their craft.  It’s also where Darby sings with Esme and discovers she’s more than a quiet little mouse, a woman who can fashion dreams to pursue.  But there’s so much more going on in this club and in a return to contemporary times, Rose and a photographer friend Jason pursue the 1950s mystery as it gradually enfolds. 

The end of this novel is shocking but also heart-warming.  The entire story is told, the characters confess their parts and together face the future, freed of unnecessary guilt but determined to live their lives making up for the mistakes made in the passionate dreams of the times.  As the novel fluctuates between the past and the present, a type of parallel resolution occurs that is most pleasing to the reader. The Dollhouse is a great read that is carefully crafted and recommended.  Well done, Fiona Davis!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Perish from the Earth: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery No. 2 by Jonathan F. Putnam

Perish from the Earth: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery #2. Jonathan F. Putnam. Crooked Lane Books. July 11, 2017. 304 pp. ISBN #: 9781683311393.

Meet the characters who just might be responsible for the murder of a man who was angry over losing the possible love of his life:

The Gambler – a man who deals cards with an unheard-of speed and who sweats up a storm when one person figures out his tricks and lets others know.
A Drunken Fool – a man who is mourning something but not sober enough to speak about what it is but drunk enough to lash out at anyone who approaches him.

A young Artist who can sketch anyone’s facial image or a focused setting in moments but who can’t seem to make a living beyond that skill.

A Barkeep doling out drinks and scanning the crowd for trouble and maybe something or someone else.

A Dandy dressed “to the nines” with a Negro servant quietly knitting but also watching everyone quite carefully.

A vivacious Actress dressed in red who graces all with her becoming, fluttering eye glances.

The victim – John W. Jones of Ames Manor, Nashville, TN of the doughy face and passionate nature.

Joshua Speed – the investigator who assists Abe Lincoln in solving the crime of Jones’s murder

Abraham Lincoln- lawyer, fierce advocate of abolition of the slaves, who with Speed investigates the murder.

As legal cases in Nashville are heard on a “circuit” system, Lincoln and Speed have little time to solve the murder mystery or the accused perpetrator will have to wait almost another year before going on trial, a year in a jail that is cold and cruel enough to kill anyone.

It turns out Speed’s father owns the ship where these nefarious characters are traveling and interacting.  The card game is obviously rigged but for what purpose.  The money Speed is supposed to collect is supposedly unavailable and so one realizes there’s something about this steamboat and its members that’s hiding something nefarious.  Speed must clear his own name since it’s guilt by association.  One also notices that guilt is quickly assigned based on the conjectures of both witnesses and acquaintances of any of these characters.

Perish from the Earth… is a fine mystery that keeps the interest consistent through the whole tale and makes the reader want to read more about this duo who have sharp sleuthing skills and a passion for ending wrongdoing.  Lincoln’s passion for ending slavery is a subplot that only adds to the suspense.  Nicely done, Jonathan F. Putnam!

The Bookshop at Water's End: A Novel by Patti Callahan Henry

The Bookshop at Water’s End. Patti Callahan Henry. Penguin Publishing Group. July 2017. 352 pp. ISBN #: 970399583117. 

To be an Emergency Nurse physician requires finely honed skills that must occur automatically but still leave room for exceptional circumstances that just might change one’s normal protocol. So when Bonnie Blankenship’s treatment of a patient results in a disaster, she takes it very personally.  Of course, she doesn’t realize that when one’s personal life is askew, automatic emotional fatigue will take its toll and thereby betray one’s usual performance.  The end result is the good doctor has been ordered to go on a brief “sabbatical” until decisions at her hospital are made.  Bonnie makes some immediate decisions that she believes she should have made long ago; whether they are right or wrong remains to be seen. 

So off to Water’s End, a small South Carolinian vacation town, she and her best friend of many years, Lainey McKay, go with their children, minus spouses.  A mystery surrounding the disappearance of Lainey’s mother years ago almost stops Lainey from returning here.  It also seems that Lainey’s brother, Owen, is an old flame of Bonnie who comes and goes on his own needs, even though Bonnie and Owen are in love.

Bonnie’s daughter Piper is also along for the trip, albeit reluctantly.  She’s got a reputation for acting out but she’s also got a secret that’s behind her excess drinking etc.  Can Bonnie and Piper repair the damage of their tense relationship?

This is a novel involving a bookshop where everyone winds up getting the book or hearing words most need to hear.  Now, that’s truly remarkable!  It sounds like a silly but wishful premise initially until the novel and conflict twists and turns progress.

No, you can’t possibly predict where the complex layers of plot are going and it make the read even that more delicious!!!!  You will be satisfied!  Highly recommended contemporary fiction that is finely crafted!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A student and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, A Student and a Life-Changing Friendship. Michelle Kuo. Random House Publishing Group. July 2017. 320 pp.  ISBN#:

Michelle Kuo is the child of immigrant Chinese parents.  Their expectations for their daughter are huge!  Michelle, however, wants to accomplish something meaningful with her life and she’s not sure that fulfillment includes only a posh job with a similar salary and home with a well-known business firm.  After graduating from Harvard University, Michelle puts decisions on hold and decides to become a Teach for America volunteer in Helena, Arkansas.  This account is just as much about Michelle’s internal life as it is what happens in her new school where abilities are negligible and interest is phenomenally non-existent.  Michelle describes the influences in her life that brought her to this moment.  What is absent from the noble speeches of African-American leaders is the agonizing difficulty of working in areas where poverty, racism, and hopelessness are rampant.

Here, however, is the magic within this nonfiction account.  Little by little, Michelle manages to show the students she cares and they begin to change in incremental ways.  The changes proceed so slowly one wonders what kind of future these students will have.  A year later students who were illiterate are beginning to read simple books and learn.  Michelle takes these students into junior high novels and autobiographies that enable students to consider not just on a reading level but also about self-worth and possibilities they couldn’t envision before meeting Michelle Kuo.

Funding ends the program, and Michelle goes to law school.  Upon graduating, she learns that one of her students, Patrick, has been arrested for murder.  The rest of the account is about her taking up a teacher-student relationship with Patrick, teaching him to read, watching him change from a condemned prisoner to a free citizen who pursues hope on his own, all of it due to the patient, caring attention of Michelle.  However, Michelle gives the credit for this transformation to the authors who penned the novels and nonfiction books she reads with Patrick.  Readers fall in love with these authors anew as they observe how words and sentences casually read are perceived as life-changing revelations to be contemplated and venerated by the Patricks of this world.

This is a magnificent story, invaluable because of its poignancy and limitless possibilities evident on almost every page.  This story is must reading for pessimists and optimists regarding the future of American youth!  Outstanding!

Betrayal at Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann

Betrayal at Iga: A Hiro Hattori Novel.  Susan Spann. Prometheus Books. July 2017. 250 pp. ISBN #: 9781633882775.

In medieval Japan, Hiro Hattori, the master ninja, and Father Mateo, the Jesuit and Portuguese priest are about to work together on a sensitive case.  Father Mateo has been hired by a very important samurai lord, from the same ninja clan as Hiro, to protect Hattori.  They travel together into the lands of that samurai lord and are invited to a welcome dinner.  During that dinner, there is obvious enmity between the members of a rival Koga clan and Hattori Hanzo.  Chaos erupts when one of the guests begins to get ill, quickly moves in seizures and dies after eating some of the lavish food they have been served.  The atmosphere quickly becomes lethal and is slightly quashed when Hiro Hattori is given a few days to solve the mystery of the poisoner.

The reader will become well-acquainted with the customs and rivalries of this 16th Century Japanese town.  It is the era of the Shogunate and the competition is rife for this position, a never-ending war in a way as gaining the title of Shogun is no guarantee that one can hold onto it.  The competitors are everywhere, both secular and sacred (Buddhist monasteries among the rivals).  It gets to the point where even family must be watched as suspicious contenders for the prize and no measure is deemed prohibited to effect victory.

Hiro Hattori and Father Mateo question the members of the Koga clan, Hiro’s own mother, a former lover and many more possible suspects.  The Koga clan were to discuss and form a peace agreement immediately after that dinner, but the chances of that happening are slim indeed!

Susan Spann has once again penned a captivating mystery, adventure story, and historical novel that keeps the reader captivated and guessing every step of the convoluted way to the bitter and surprising end!

Recommended for all fans of mysteries and Japanese samurai fiction!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power by Gary Wills

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. Gary Wills. Open Road Media. June 2017. 346 pp. ASIN #: B072F1Q32V. 

Americans who lived in the 1960s believed in the Camelot image of the Kennedy family.  Garry Wills joins the troupe of political analysts who demythologize the Camelot image.  This particular account is the reissue of his 1982 book; an introduction to the text is a look back from 2017, suggesting that we have something to compare with the current government.  You decide whether there are parallel elements!

Power was the byword for the Kennedy family, beginning with Jack Kennedy’s father.   Money and connections were the ingredients of success that bought political office, connections with famous people, and deals that turned out to have major and minor significant in American history.  But those elements that guaranteed success also, according to Wills, encased the Kennedy family in a downward spiral that almost finished off the family until Teddy Kennedy finally got his act together to dismantle the destructive family patterns and dedicated the latter part of his life to “service” to the people he represented as a Senator.

While some may be intrigued by the aspects of sex, family, image, charisma, and power, others will be revolted.  Everything is relative to one’s point of view and priorities.  Ironically, every one of these aspects in which the book is outlined had potential for greatness.  The “prisoner” aspect of sex, for example, shows Jack Kennedy, despite his serious physical ailments, as a nymphomaniac who seemed unable to control his need for conquering women sexually.  Ignoring him was tantamount to a desperate campaign to win while the Kennedy women seemed to ignore Jack’s randy ways.  The other fascinating aspect is Jack’s obsession with famous people like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, etc., etc.  The trashier the gossip, the more Jack loved to hear and share it.

Bobby Kennedy seems to have been the exception as far as women but his notorious temper and exertion of power on domestic and international issues cannot be denied. 

On and on it goes.  American strength separated us from everyone else and allowed us to threaten and challenge from that position when the reality was we were no different than weaker nations (Russia, Cuba, etc.) in insisting on dominating international politics.

There are some interesting portions of this analysis but for those very familiar with the Kennedy era, there’s not much new to learn herein.  The Kennedys certainly personalized the image of the American government, but Wills ultimately includes American citizens in his critique.  For we love the power, glamor, naughtiness, and machinations as much as we say we decry them.  The fact that Gary Wills’ book is being published anew says volumes about America’s fascination.  The question we are left with is, “Do we see the immense consequences of such worship and enablement?”  Reader, analyze and decide!