It’s a Mystery : Not Here, by Genevieve Nocovo

Not Here (Dina Ostica Novel 1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dina Ostica, a 23 year old woman trying not to let her emotional issues control her life, is not the sort of protagonist I would normally choose to read about. When author Genevieve Nocovo approached me about reading and reviewing Not Here, the first book in a planned series, after giving it some thought, I agreed. Dina at 23 couldn’t be more different than I was at that age, many moons ago. While I followed the traditional route of earning a college degree and starting a career, Dina seems to be floating about wondering how to support herself without doing much to at least secure an entry level position with a regular paycheck. Her desire to make a living as a podcaster without a day job is unrealistic, and while she tries to be fiercely independent, she is living alone, broke and somewhat desperate, which only exacerbates her emotional instability. Hence, she makes choices that only a very young, very inexperienced, and very immature person would make. This girl needs a mentor, since she seems disconnected from her parents and is stuck in a quagmire that spurs even more insecurity and desperation.

At any rate, Dina’s pursuit of a podcasting “scoop” that will attract major attention succeeds, but not in the way she had hoped. She tries to expose a conspiracy run by a major real estate firm, aimed at getting rid of tenants living in rent controlled apartments by offing them, so the newly vacant flats can be rented at today’s much higher rates. To make matters worse, when she goes to the police, they brush off her concerns. As a result she is kidnapped and forced to work with the conspirators, knowing that when her usefulness runs out she will be killed. It is at this point in the novel that the action quickens, the suspense builds, and the reader’s interest level shoots up. Watching how Dina copes with her plight, basically alone and relying on her own resources (fortunately she trains at a gym learning self defense techniques, and where she has made a couple of friends who can help.) Her plight is truly horrific, and your heart, while stuck in your throat, goes out to her.

Not Here is a competently written debut novel, and surely its sequel will be even better, as the author hones her skills and ups the sophistication of her prose and presentation.

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It’s a Mystery: Dark Turns, by Cate Holahan

Dark Turns
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nia Washington is a 22 year old ballet dancer recovering from an injury and a romantic breakup. She takes a temp position at a posh private school as assistant to the director of their elite dance program, until she’s strong enough to returning to auditioning for pro companies. Nia’s very first day on the job is marred by her discovery of a student’s body floating in the campus lake, apparently strangled. Dark Turns focuses upon the aftermath, as she tries to glean some insight into who might have committed the murder.

As a mystery, Dark Turns reads rather like a novel for teens and young adults. Nia is a likeable, earnest young woman who enjoys her contact with the students in her class. The other adults in the book come across according to type, including the school’s stern director, the officious head of campus security, and the local “just the facts, Ma’am” police. Somewhat more natural is Nia’s new love interest, Peter Anderson, English teacher. Scattered liberally through each chapter are explanations of dance terms, description of dancers, dances, and costumes, and details about the relationships among Nia’s students. The plot line is stretched pretty thin, and there is little attention paid to developing any of the characters. Also scattered about are thinly-veiled “tells”, from which the reader can can come up with a viable suspect but Nia apparently cannot.

Dark Turns would probably be better appreciated by teens, dance aficionados, and mystery readers who expect a more complex tale.

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Historical Fiction: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Essex Serpent has the distinction of being one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever come across, and I’ve been reading them for a long time. The critical reviews for it are stellar. The language is eloquent and frequently lyrical, reminiscent at times of Dickens, Austen, Hardy, and G. Eliot. The characters, though ordinary, are thrumming with life, and each represents a different aspect of English life in late Victorian times. Its narrative is an internal one, as it hops among their minds and their separate reactions to the same incident. Much of it is sad, yet it escapes being dismal. Into the mix, the author deftly inserts social and existential issues, which are just as relevant today as they were in the book’s own time frame. But the plot, that all important feature in any work of fiction, is skeletal.

While I savored all the good things about The Essex Serpent, I kept wishing something would happen. When two momentous somethings finally did, they played out in such an understated fashion that their impact was all but blunted. The conclusion, though not surprising, left me wondering if the author was considering a sequel. If so, I’m not sure if I’d choose to read it. But I’m glad I read this one, if only to discover what influenced all the stellar reviews.

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History News: Coventry’s Doom Painting

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Doomsday paintings are medieval depictions of Christianity’s Last Judgment, when the dead rise from their graves to gather before Christ enthroned, to find out whether their new eternal homes will be in heaven or hell. The most famous painting is that of Michelangelo, an enormous, extremely detailed rendition that covers the east wall in the Sistine Chapel. But in less important churches across Western Europe, as well as in some cathedrals, less renowned artists produced smaller frescos that were usually located on the arch at the exit point, generally a west wall. Their purpose, of course, was to scare the congregation into avoiding temptations and focusing their behavior on performing works of mercy and kindness. Sometimes such paintings would be placed on the chancel arch near the altar, where worshippers could contemplate it throughout the entire service.

In England, many of these paintings were destroyed or whitewashed over during the Reformation, but quite a few still remain. The one shown above is located at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, where it was restored in 2004.

 

Just a little food for thought……..

 

It’s a Mystery: Even If It Kills Her, by Kate White

Even If It Kills Her (Bailey Weggins Mystery, #7)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Crime writer/investigator Bailey Weggins is signing copies of her latest true-crime book when who should appear but a friend from college, Jillian Lowe, who dropped out following the brutal murder of her family. Bailey’s rather non-plussed, feeling guilty because she failed to provide support to or even maintain contact with Jillian 16 years ago, so when she’s asked for a favor, she feels obligated to grant it. In a nutshell, the man now serving time for the murders may be exonerated due to new and exculpatory DNA evidence, and, since the cops aren’t interested in reopening the case, Jillian hopes Bailey will assist her in identifying the true killer.

Within hours of their arrival in the small Berkshires town where the Lowes made their home, local animosity toward the two women becomes apparent. Bailey sets up a few interviews with people who knew the family when the tragedy occurred; few of them are cooperative. One of the administtra who worked at the high school that Jillian and her sister attended is more forthcoming, providing Bailey with possible leads, but less than a day later, she is killed in what appears to be a staged burglary at her home. The police chief and the assistant DA, from whom Bailey seeks support, warn her off and threaten her. When Bailey herself is assaulted, she and Jillian are afraid that the real murderer is still in the locality and knows what they are about.

There are some surprises in this account, the most effective of them an graphic attack by a vicious dog, which White describes with skill. Although it becomes painfully clear that Bailey is playing with fire, she remains determined to discover the truth. Some of her choices are nothing short of foolhardy. Not even the strenuous objections of her boyfriend, who fears she will also die, deter her. The subplot that focuses on their currently shaky relationship lends some human interest to the storyline, as does the revelation of some Lowe family secrets, the biggest of which I did not foresee. In spite of all the danger, most of the novel lacks the element of actual suspense, however, and I never doubted that Bailey would emerge battered but victorious.

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History News: World’s Oldest Ceremonial Fire?

Atlas Obscura publishes a daily newsletter that is one of the most interesting sites around. Its staff works tirelessly to ferret out odd or unusual places in the world for their brief articles, accompanied by photos and information about how to get there. Today they ran one about a beautiful site of worship in Yazd, Iran, a Zoroastrian temple that houses an Atash Behram (Fire of Victory). Fire and water are the agents of ritual purity, used to produce clean, white ash for ritual purification ceremonies.

This brick Zoroastrian temple holds a fire that has burned for more than 1,500 years. The ancient flame has been kept alive, in various locations, since 470, during the Sassanian Empire. The only temple of its type located outside of India,  it has been situated in Yazd since 1934. Today, the sacred flame burns within a bronze vessel and is protected by a glass wall. Only the temple priests are permitted inside the sanctum, where the flame is fed with dry wood.

In present-day Zoroastrian tradition, adherents bring offerings of pieces of sweet smelling  wood, such as sandalwood, which is received by a priest wearing a cloth over nose and mouth to prevent polluting the fire with the breath. He will enter the sanctuary alone, and, with a pair of silver tongs, place the offering in the fire. He then will use a special ladle to present a small amount of the holy ash to the layperson, who anoints his or her own forehead and eyelids, then takes some ash home for their private rituals.

There are many other features of this interesting and ancient  religious practice, which is quite complex, with plenty of information available on many internet sites. There are three different levels of ceremonial fire for three different purposes, for example, and 16 sources of fire.  It has been enjoyable and edifying to learn about this particular one, which is similar in some respects to the Christian Ash Wednesday.

It’s a Mystery: The Detective’s Daughter, by Lesley Thomson

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Detective’s Daughter  does not have a straightforward opening, which is off putting to many readers. It reads as a collection of unrelated short stories, and requires some patience until things start to become clearer. These are backstories, and they’re well worth the wait.

On a sunny day in 1981, young mother Kate Rokesmith is found murdered along the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith. Hours later, her little boy, Jonathan, is found huddled at the foot of sculpture he always enjoyed visiting, and police deduce that he probably witnessed to killing, but the trauma leaves him unwilling/unable to answer their questions.  A single witness, a neighbor,  saw the pair head off for their walk, but otherwise there is a frustrating dearth of information. The police suspect the husband, but lack any semblance of evidence, and the case goes cold. This is one of the cases that has  obsessed former DCS Terry Darnell for thirty years, even into retirement. When he dies suddenly of a heart attack, his semi-estranged daughter, Stella, owner of a professional cleaning business, sets about clearing his house, and a box  of papers she was sorting through indicates that he was actively pursuing the case. When she hires  Jack Harmon to serve a cleaner to her new dentist, Stella finds him decidedly quirky, but surprisingly effective and efficient. It isn’t long before he becomes as interested as she is in the unsolved crime. What ensues is a distinctly cerebral mystery that grows harder and harder to put down. Along the way, Stella learns things about her dad as well as herself that she had never before considered or even recognized. More than a simple police procedural, The Detective’s Daughter is a book about relationships, with vivid, realistic characters, eerie surprises, and several genuinely suspenseful moments.

While reading this novel, I did a web search about the setting, finding many evocative photos that helped bring the story to life. Finished the book this afternoon, and now I’m off to start Ghost Girl, the second book in this series, eager to know more about how Stella and Jack develop as characters. Can’t wait!