Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deep Pockets, Linda Barnes

Wilson Chaney, a Harvard professor, comes to Carlotta Carlyle for help finding a blackmailer.  Turns out that he had an affair with a student, who has since died in a fire.  He wants Carlotta to retrieve some letters that he wrote to her and protect his marriage and his reputation.  But as Carlotta starts tracking the victim, the last few weeks of the girl's life, and the probable blackmailer, she discovers there is much more at stake than one Harvard professor's reputation.  Wilson Chaney is working on a new drug for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, one that shows the promise of help for millions of kids-and for lots of profits to whoever gets it to market first.

Barnes' character Carlotta Carlyle is one of my favorite female PIs.  Carlotta-private investigator, sometime cabby, and life-long Boston resident, shows a resiliency and independence that is common in the best written female lead characters.  With a new love interest in FBI agent Leon, her quirky roommate Roz, and her little "sister" Paolina, Carlotta has her hands full even without a troublesome client and someone trying to kill her.  Add former love interest and mob boss Sam Gianelli, and there is enough personal and professional intrigue going on to keep the reader interested for all 320 pages.  While the mystery itself is not as intricate as some (I did figure it out by about half-way thorough the book), it is an enjoyable popcorn book.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I Still Don't Like Hemingway, But...

...if The Paris Wife is an accurate historical portrayal of his early literary life, then I feel like I can forgive some of his macho, sexist writing.

In case you lived under a literary rock for the last 12 months, The Paris Wife is the fictionalized story of Hadley Hemingway ne Richardson, who was Ernest Hemingway's first wife (out of four total).  Based on extensive research into the Hemingways' time in Paris, the novel starts in Chicago, where a young Hadley meets an even younger Ernest at a party.  Instantly drawn to each other, the two start an affair that eventually leads to marriage.  Despite the disapproval of both families, Ernest and Hadley set off for Paris, the happening scene for writers and artists in the very early 20th century.  Surrounded by such literary giants and Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Ernest sets about the serious business of writing.  Hadley, left to her own devices most of the time, loses herself in his career.  Over time, their relationship cannot withstand the darkness in his own soul, or his affair with a young editor at Vogue.

I've managed to read one and a half Hemingway novels, and a few of his short stories.  The one I remember best is Hills Like White Elephants,  about a woman who wants to have a baby with her husband but he wants her to have an abortion so he doesn't have to change his rather selfish lifestyle.  Not exactly endearing.  I've always been put off by his very violent ideas about manhood, and his rather apparent disrespect for women.  Having read The Paris Wife, however, I am better able to put his ideas in not just a historical context, but a more personal, emotional one.

What I didn't know about him before reading this book was that he was injured in the first World War, and that he spent most of the rest of his life trying to stare down death, terrified by his own morality.  Constantly afraid of being seen as cowardly or weak, he actively sought out experiences, like the bullfights in Pamplona, to convince himself of his own strength.  His war experiences, coupled with his depressive nature and the history of mental illness in his family, suddenly I see his overly-macho definition of what it means to be a man in a new light.  And while I still don't like his fiction, and I still think that he was a philandering sexist, at least now I have a context to put it in.  I now have compassion where before was only contempt.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Live to Tell, Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner writes psychological thrillers that show some of the darkest places that the human mind can go.  Most of her novels, whether stand alone or part of her D.D. Warren series, explore the complicated relationships we often have with our parents, spouses, or children.  Live to Tell is no exception.  In this fast paced, fairly creepy thriller, D.D. Warren and her team are called in to investigate the apparent murder/suicide of a family of five.  However, there are things about the scene that don't add up, and it soon becomes apparent that what was staged to look like a family annihilation was in fact the cold-blooded murder of a happy couple and their children.  When another family is killed in a similar way, D.D. knows that they are looking for someone truly disturbed, who appears to be reenacting a family annihilation from the past.  Tying all of the victims together is a child psych unit for the most acute cases-children who have psychoses so severe that they are a real danger to themselves and their families.  Danielle Burton, one of the psychiatric nurses, was the lone survivor of a family annihilation herself, and soon D. D. come to believe that she may be the key to solving the whole  case.

A word to the wise-this book is not for the faint of heart.  The description of he troubled children and the things they are capable of was chilling.  As horrific as the crimes themselves were, reading about a little boy who is so cunning and violent that he lies in wait for his mother in order to follow through on his threat to kill her was worse.  But the setting of the locked children's psych ward was fascinating, and the mystery itself had enough twists and turns that there is more than the slightly creepy draw of the psychotic children.   This popcorn comes with a side of crazy, but it is an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A Duty to the Dead-Popcorn from World War I

Take a soldier's dying wish, an independent battlefield nurse, a decades old secret, and a madman in an asylum, put them together into a deliciously engaging story, and you have A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd.

Here's what Goodreads has to say about the plot:

           England, 1916. Independent-minded Bess Crawford's upbringing is far different from that of the usual upper-middle-class British gentlewoman. Growing up in India, she learned the importance of responsibility, honor, and duty from her offi­cer father. At the outbreak of World War I, she followed in his footsteps and volunteered for the nursing corps, serving from the battlefields of France to the doomed hospital ship Britannic.
         On one voyage, Bess grows fond of the young, gravely wounded Lieutenant Arthur Graham. Something rests heavily on his conscience, and to give him a little peace as he dies, she promises to deliver a message to his brother. It is some months before she can carry out this duty, and when she's next in England, she herself is recovering from a wound.
        When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother's last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.

I loved the character of Bess.  She was independent and strong-willed, traits I especially like in my heroines.  But what really made the book for me was the very British-ness of is all.  You've got the references to serving in India that always remind me of The Secret Garden, family estates, the whole upstairs/downstairs vibe, the country rectory, and the whole asylum thing.  Plus lots and lots of tea.  Todd brought a Victorian sensibility to the Edwardian era-change the war they are fighting and the reference to motor-cars and this book could have taken place 50 years earlier.

One of the things that drew me into the novel was the examination of the family dynamics that led to the tragic events that unfold.  So much of British upper class life was kept under wraps out of propriety's sake that figuring out exactly what is going on in any given family is a bit like opening one of those gifts within a gift-you know, where someone wraps a small box inside a larger box and so on-except usually what is discovered when you get to the final layer of these family dramas is not nearly as nice as a present.

This is the first of a new series by Todd with Bess as the main character, and I look forward to following her on many more mysteries.