Friday, August 31, 2012

What I read on my "Summer Vacation"

I took full advantage of the sale from Sourcebooks of all ebooks by the "Queen of Regency" romance, Georgette Heyer. Many have said that reading Georgette Heyer is the next best thing to reading Jane Austen and I have to agree. Heyer researched the period meticulously and made full use of period slang and terminology. It is easy to read the language in context but I found Jennifer Kloester's Georgette Heyer's Regency World not only useful but interesting reading on it's own merits. I especially enjoyed the short biographies of real historical figures that make an appearance in the books. When I said I took full advantage of the sale I wasn't kidding. I have enough Heyer books to make me smile for a long time to come. 

The Toll-Gate (1954) tells the story of Captain John Staple. "Crazy Jack" is beloved by his comrades and known for his exploits both on and off the battlefield. Back from the Peninsular Wars, he is bored with his country life and being encouraged by his family to marry. Having never met a girl who "levelled" him he is in no hurry to settle down. When he stumbles across a toll-gate with a missing gatekeeper and a frightened child, nothing will stop him from taking over the toll-gate and solving the mystery. When he meets Lady Nell Stornaway at the gate, Jack is finally "levelled". Lady Nell has a sick grandfather and is being plagued by menacing relatives. The road to a happy ending has many twists and turns and a wealth of memorable characters. Reading Georgette Heyer's Regency World would have been very useful as it is full of "thieves cant" but I was able to muddle along. RATING 4 Stars

The Grand Sophy (1950) is one of Georgette Heyer's best known and loved novels- for very good reasons. Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her niece Sophy who has been living and traveling with her diplomat father for the previous 10 years. During those years Sophy has grown into an imposing young woman with a mind of her own and a penchant for "setting things to right". The Ombersley family is much in need of Sophy's help, whether they know it or not. Cecelia is in love with a poet, oldest son Charles has tyrannical tendencies and an annoyingly pious betrothed, Father is of no use at all and the younger children are in need of some fun and freedom. Sophy takes the "ton" and the family by storm and manages to break almost all of society's rules in the process. By the end of the novel all is well with the Ombersleys and Sophy has stolen Charles' heart. This is Georgette Heyer at the very top of her game. RATING- 5 stars

Arabella (1949) is another of Heyer's most beloved heroines. Daughter of a country vicar, Arabella is the eldest of eight children in a happy household and an acknowledged beauty. Her mother has a little money of her own and has scrimped and saved for years so that Arabella might have a London season and make an advantageous match. Her godmother, Lady Bridlington, has agreed to launch her into society. On the way to London, Arabella's ancient coach breaks down in front of Robert Beaumarais' hunting lodge and she asks for shelter. Beaumarais is a "nonpareil" of the ton and very jaded and haughty besides. When Arabella overhears a remark he makes about her, her famous impetuous temper leads her to make up a story about her background and circumstances. This story will haunt her as Robert thinks it would be amusing to spread it about that Arabella is a great heiress. Arabella is a success in society with many marriage proposals but she never knows whether she is being sought out because of herself or her supposed fortune. Meanwhile, Robert is falling in love with her wit, charm and compassionate nature. During the course of their relationship Robert finds a home for a mistreated chimney-sweep, takes in an unprepossessing mongrel dog and saves Arabella's impetuous young brother from certain disgrace and possible prison. None of these things would he have done without meeting Arabella. Arabella is witty and heart-warming, a pleasure to read. RATING- 5 stars

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Simone St. James
New American Library
March 2012

I have always enjoyed a good ghost story and one set in the post WWI era in England was even more appealing. The historical background and a positive comment from one of my favorite authors, Susanna Kearsley, made The Haunting of Maddy Clare a must read for me.

The utter devastation wrought upon an entire generation by the first mechanized war coupled with the effects of the influenza epidemic of 1918 brought about unprecedented social change. While WWI claimed an estimated 16 million lives, the 1918 influenza epidemic cost an estimated 50 million lives worldwide. It is London in 1922 and Sarah Piper is friendless, without family and working in a series of dreary temp jobs. Jobs have been scarce and Sarah is nearly penniless when she is called out into the rain to meet Alistair Gellis who has a very unusual job offer for her. The very attractive Mr. Gellis is an author who has written books about ghost-sightings in England. His usual assistant, Matthew Ryder, is unavailable to accompany him. Not only that, this particular ghost is known to hate men and the house's owner insists that only a woman can contact the ghost. When the local vicar attempted an exorcism, he was attacked by the ghost and so frightened he gave up his "living" and left the area. As Mr. Gellis is clearly a gentleman and Sarah is so desperate, she agrees to take the job.

Maddy was about 19 years old when she died. She showed up on the family's doorstep 7 years previously, obviously beaten and sexually abused, unable to speak because her vocal cords were damaged in a strangulation attempt. The Clares very kindly take her in and nurse her but they are unable to find out who she is. Maddy remembers her first name, but not her last, and she is known as Maddy Clare from then on. She never leaves the property and is found hanging in the barn with no real explanation. Maddy is a terrifyingly real, powerful, destructive, rage filled spirit and Mrs. Clare is desperate to remove her. Sarah is very frightened by Maddy but made of sterner stuff than she appears.When Matthew Ryder returns the three form a partnership to discover the reasons for the haunting. Alistair, Matthew and Sarah are wounded in body and soul and Maddy threatens all of them. They are also threatened by the living in the village who are guarding a secret or simply believe the three are charlatans.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is a very effective ghost story and St. James builds believable suspense throughout. It is also a story of friendship, love and healing set in a sometimes forgotten era. I am looking forward to Simone St. James' book and recommend The Haunting of Maddy Clare highly.

Rating- 4 1/2 Stars

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

This Pirate Ship takes on Water but doesn't sink (quite).

                                          THE PIRATE KING
                                          Laurie R. King
                                          Recorded Books

I have always been a fan of Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels, but this one has been sitting on my iPod for a very long time indeed. The early reviews were pretty dismal, citing problems with an improbable and convoluted plot and even worse- not enough Holmes. I knew I would get to it eventually and now that the release of the next novel in the series, "Garment of Shadows", is imminent and coincides with my yearly "reading vacation" in Maine, the time was last week.

Mary Russell is approached by Inspector Lestrade and is asked to sign on with Fflyte Films as an assistant. It appears that whenever and wherever Fflyte Films is working, a sort of mini-crime wave appears, including gun-running and drugs on the street. Mary is not interested in either films or the case but Sherlock's brother Mycroft is coming for a visit. Mary is not at all pleased with the visit after the events of the previous two books in which she found that Mycroft has manipulated British policy in an untoward manner. She takes the job mostly to avoid Mycroft and that's when the plot begins to become convoluted and even somewhat farcical.

The megalomanical Randolph Fflyte is the hope of the fledgling British film industry. Fflyte Films has had some huge hits and also some huge misses. The newest project is "The Pirate King", a film about the making of a film based loosely (very loosely) on Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance". That was a big groaner for me as I find Gilbert and Sullivan both sophomoric and jingoistic. The film has a cast of what feels like thousands what with the 12 daughters and the 12 pirate suitors as well as crew members. Flytte's obsession with realism leads him to refurbish a derelict brigantine and sail off to Morocco with real pirates aboard. Much farce, some fairly agonizing suspense and an international incident later, Mary solves the original mystery with the help of Holmes. I was totally surprised by the culprit but then I had almost forgotten about that plot line.

Having said all that, the elements that I always enjoy most in the Russell/Holmes novels are present in "The Pirate King". Laurie King has a remarkable ability to transport me to a place and time that is completely alien. I think "O Jerusalem" is my favorite of the novels because of the wonderful descriptions of colonial Palestine. She succeeds yet again with her depiction of Morocco. Even though Holmes  is not present in much of the book the oddly assorted but equal partnership still works admirably. I can see that if one has no interest in early film-making those elements might become tedious but I do have at least a passing interest. Laurie King takes a risk with "The Pirate King" and I admire her willingness to do so.

The next novel in the series also takes place in Morocco and features a return of the Hazr "brothers" from "O Jerusalem". I definitely won't wait long to listen to "Garment of Shadows". Jenny Sterlin's able narrations always make Holmes and Russell a "must listen" for me.

Rating- 3 Skulls and Coss-Bones


Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Stunning Memoir from Damien Echols of the "West Memphis 3"

Damien Echols
Penguin Group (Blue Rider)
September 18, 2012

I can't say that "prison writing" has ever been my reading choice, but having seen the HBO documentary, Paradise Lost, about the events and hysteria surrounding the arrests and convictions of three teenagers in the murders of 3 eight-year-old boys I had more than a passing interest in the case. I was able to pick up a readers copy of LIFE AFTER DEATH at BEA this year, even though I missed the actual signing.

On the face of it, the arrests and trials seemed to me one more in a long line of American mob hysterias about satanism and witchcraft. The hysteria was whipped up by the media with sensational and often completely non-factual reporting. Add an incompetent police investigation and you have the classic lynching scenario. Damien Echols was tailor-made to fit the bill as scapegoat. The only "goth" kid in town from an impoverished and thus powerless background the police thought he was an ideal candidate for a quick resolution to a brutal crime. Josh Baldwin made the mistake of being Damien's friend, and Jessie Misskelly was only an acquaintance. Jessie however had a very low IQ and would be easy to coerce into a confession. All three were convicted, but Damien was sentenced to death. Questions were being asked during and as soon as the trial ended about the lack of evidence and the dismal quality of the investigation. Two HBO documentary makers went down to cover the trial and what they expected to be a lurid tale of cult murder and satanism turned into an expose of police and judicial misconduct. Many famous people such as Johnny Depp, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson, and Henry Rollins; along with many private citizens became supporters. One of those citizens, Lorri Davis, a landscape architect from New York City, became his most staunch and tireless advocate. Lorri moved to Little Rock and the two were married while he was still in prison. The State of Arkansas fought them every inch of the way but the three were finally freed in 2011. Freed, but not exonerated, as they could only negotiate freedom under an "Afton Plea", a concept I cannot get my head around. An "Afton Plea is a guilty plea in which they stipulated that they are not guilty.

No one, not even Damien represents himself as a sterling character. I find his recounting of his early life almost painfully honest. The product of a broken home, dire poverty, a rage-filled fundamentalist step-father and an ineffectual mother (the kindest description I can give of her), Damien got into some minor trouble, failed a couple of grades and was in a state of drift. He had a couple of court mandated stays in mental institutions. Those stays were used to great effect in the trial but I have to question whether wearing black clothing and liking Metallica constitutes mental illness. His abortive attempt to run away with a girlfriend while still in high school got him on the local police radar, and they never let him out of their sights. However, Damien loved to read and was always a spiritual seeker. Those two qualities saved his sanity while in prison along with a determination to survive and see freedom again. He used meditation, Zen practices and journaling to save his sanity and exercise to save what he could of his health. 

LIFE AFTER DEATH is a beautifully written and riveting indictment of the judicial system and the penal system. Today's "supermax" facilities are the modern day equivalent of the medieval oubliette, finely calculated to drive men insane. Twenty-three hours of solitary confinement a day and decades without seeing the sun would drive anyone insane. To survive the brutality he was subjected to and come out with a finely honed writing style and intact soul is a true testament to the strength of the human spirit. Damien does not want to be known as just the guy who got off death row but it was that experience shaped him. I look forward to more from Damien Echols.

Rating- 5 Stars

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Happy 110th Birthday, Ms. Heyer

In honor of Georgette Heyer's 110th birthday on August 16, The British Babes Book Brigade and Sourcebooks have a GREAT promotion during the month of August. Georgette Heyer was a very prolific writer known today as "the Queen of Regency Romance". She published a total of 56 novels in the romance, historical fiction and mystery genres. Her romances in particular have been loved by generations of readers for their vivid characterizations, extraordinary plots and historical accuracy.  The regencies are clever and quite often hilarious comedies of manners involving misunderstandings and a great deal of charm and heart. My personal favorite is Frederica, followed closely by The Nonesuch and The Quiet Gentleman. Georgette Heyer's novels are a perfect antidote for the pressures of modern life and are meant to be read and re-read.

Get 30% off any Heyer print book during the month of August at by using the coupon code HEYER at checkout.

All available Georgette Heyer eBooks are on sale for $2.99 August 14-20.

If you are not acquainted with Georgette Heyer or want to add to your collection, this is a great opportunity!