It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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It’s A Mystery: The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Jewell has written quite a few novels, but this was my introduction to her work, enticed by the idea of a contemporary mystery set in an English communal garden. As the book opens , Clare Wild is moving into a flat with her two daughters, all three reeling from losing their home to a fire set by their schizophrenic husband and father, now hospitalized. They are immediately intrigued by the spacious fenced garden set into the center of their neighborhood, and soon Grace and Pip are drawn into a clique of other girls who live nearby and regularly hang out there.

The first half of the novel focuses upon Grace and Pip’s struggles to adapt, and, while laying the groundwork for the second half, author Jewell displays her talent for creating credible characters, even while nothing momentous is occurring. The same skill is evident when the adults start to take center stage, when one of the girls is discovered, unconscious and bloody, in the otherwise deserted garden. Somebody knows something, and now the mystery is the focus. It seems a similar event occurred fifteen years earlier. Most of the residents now must wrestle with suspicions, secrets, and fears that have long been dormant.

The mystery is ultimately resolved, but a few loose ends remain that refuse to be tucked in. The Girls in the Garden is a satisfying mystery filled with fascinating characters, and much of its appeal lies in watching their actions, reactions, and choices. I’ll definitely be reading more of Lisa Jewell.

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Modern Lit: The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a lifetime of devouring books, I have concluded that most of them are read and easily forgotten, but a few stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Chris Bohjalian has the distinction of having written two of the latter. The first is Skeletons at the Feast, about the horrors committed on the populace by Germans and Russians during the last months of WWII. I just finished reading the second yesterday, The Guest Room, which is about the horrors of international human trafficking, and have no doubt that it too will continue to haunt my memory for years to come.

A bachelor party (when did they stop calling them “stags”?) gone terribly wrong is the impetus for the story line, which plays out from the points of view of the host, Richard Chapman, and one of the young “exotic dancers”, Alexandra. They are both powerful characters. It is painful to read Alexandra’s graphic account of her brutal kidnapping and degradation, and the utter hopelessness of her ensuing life, and she is one of the most unforgettable protagonists I have ever encountered. It is less easy to feel sympathy for Richard, the urbane and savvy investment banker with a beautiful wife and child who simply watched his brother’s “party” decline into total debauchery and end in murder. But loss of control characterizes Richard’s situation as well as Alexandra’s, and as he struggles to cope with the many humiliations and complications he will have to suffer,  his deep shame and  his refusal to make excuses reveal him in essence as a good man who drank way too much and failed to put his foot on the brakes when he should have. His wife, Kristin, is also multi-dimensional, refraining from vengefulness despite her sickening sense of revulsion  and disbelief over her husband’s betrayal and the bloody desecration of their home. Melissa, their nine year old daughter, is the child Alexandra never had the chance to be; one of the few smiles provoked during the story came from Melissa’s fear that the men killed in her home were still present as ghosts.

This is a tightly plotted novel written with all the skill I’ve come to expect from Bohjalian’s prose. Surprises abound, and the book ends up at a place I never foresaw for it. It is not easy to read, but it is certainly gripping, and I finished it in a day. But the hopelessless that colors most of the chapters is somewhat mitigated at last.

Now I have to figure out what I want to do to help end human trafficking.

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Bad Girls: Kiki de Montparnasse

brancusi-rosso-man-ray-05I first learned about Alice Prin, aka Kiki de Montparnasse, while reading Laurie R. King’s novel, The Bones of Paris, a mystery set in 1920’s Paris. Kiki’s story is an intriguing one. She was born in Burgundy in 1901, raised in poverty and poorly educated. She arrived in Paris at age 12, when her mother moved there to find work. Kiki herself worked at a bakery and as a dishwasher, gradually becoming an artists’ model, through which, she said, she had found her “real milieu”. Of Montparnasse she wrote, “People are broadminded and where what would be crime elsewhere is just a pecadillo”. Kiki was no thin little waif; there was meat on her bones and  she was never shy about showing off her face or body. More accurately, it seems, Kiki was never shy about anything; she once landed in jail for slugging a cafe owner and a policeman. She modeled for and provided inspiration todozens of well known artists, and when she became Man Ray’s muse and lover, she quickly became celebrated as a symbol of bohemian Paris.

kiki5b45dWhat makes Kiki a “bad girl” is her refusal to be just another artists’ model, instead deciding for herself what her public persona would be. She performed in short, experimental movies, some of them deemed shocking, and sang risque songs in music halls. She demanded the same sexual freedoms that were granted to men, and celebrated her sexuality. In the hundreds of photos that were taken of her, she stares directly out at the viewer. One of her closest friends was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote the introduction to her memoirs, which were considered so scandalous that her books were banned in the U.S. Hanging out with so many major talents inspired Kiki to develop her own creative abilities, and when her paintings were exhibited at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, they sold out on opening night.

As the era of the 1920’s drew to a close, Kiki fell into a long downward spiral, during which substance abuse and addiction would destroy her health. She died in 1953 at the age of 53. As the “Queen of Montparnasse”,  she was a trailblazer in the quest for women’s freedom to live their lives on their own terms.

 

It’s a Mystery: The Bones of Paris, by Laurie R. King

The Bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laurie King transports her readers to Jazz Age Paris in the second entry in her Harris Stuyvesant series. Harry is still trying to recover from a long defunct romance, so he accepts a request to look into the disappearance of Philippa Crosby, with whom he had a brief fling on the Riviera. Pip, as she’s known, has been skirting the fringes of the Parisian demi-monde , modeling for artists such as Man Ray and hobnobbing with Hemingway and his cronies. The surreal and macabre nature of some of her belongings disturb Harry initially.  But when he traces Pip’s activities to the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, a venue famous for its depraved and violent presentations, his concerns skyrocket.

Stuyvesant is a morose, rather cynical character, and when his lost love, Sarah,  turns up in the company of Man Ray, it throws him; as a result Harry throws himself into the seamy, often secretive midnight bar scene frequented by artists and writers. Interestingly, he’s developed a real attraction to Pip’s flatmate, but his dark mood and careless habits threaten to wreck the relationship before it begins. During the course of his investigation, he finds himself immersed in a subculture that meets in Paris’ infamous catecombs to celebrate the cult of “death pornography”. Harry begins to receive messages meant to encourage him to quit the search, and when he persists, his casual mistress is shot to death on the streets. Harry connects with a city detective who, because of Harry’s former association with J. Edgar Hoover, is willing to work with him, undercover, bien sur. To their horror, many more young women have disappeared.

The appeal of this novel lies in its ambience, the view it provides into the dark underside of the City of Light. The investigation itself is rather slow, with a shot of real suspense saved for the final chapters. It’s fun to encounter the rich and famous, though the only ones portrayed in any depth are Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. Harry himself, in spite of his self-defeating choices, is likable for his humanity and genuine sense of justice. King’s writing, of course, is good as ever.  Not a “page turner”, but did keep my interest from start to finish.

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It’s a Mystery: The Woman in Cabin Ten, by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Locked room mysteries have been popular over the years, and while The Woman in Cabin Ten takes place on a yacht, it follows classic locked room standards. Lo Blackwood is a journalist working for a travel magazine when she’s handed a plum assignment – to sail and report on the maiden voyage of luxury boutique cruise ship Northern Lights. Shortly before she’s due to depart, Lo’s apartment is broken into while she’s sleeping. Lo is no wonder woman. She’s been depressed and anxious for most of her life, and the break in (which is one of the novel’s more effective sequences) terrifies her, which, in fairness, is how most women would react. To pile on additional stress, she has a fight with her boyfriend hours before boarding ship. So when Lo overhears the sounds of a body being thrown overboard on her first night at sea, she reacts in a way that lands her in permanent panic mode.

The rest of the book follows the course of Lo’s attempts to convince the ship’s crew that a murder has taken place. This is a more difficult task than you might think, and the tension ratchets up even higher when she discovers that someone has been tampering with things in her cabin. Lo trusts none of her fellow passengers, and while no one believes her, she does begin to make some progress to eliminating possible suspects. The final third of the story takes place in a pitch black, locked room deep in the ship’s hold, where Lo has been taken prisoner because she now knows too much. Ruth Ware has realistically portrayed the effects of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in these scenes. At times, the narrative cuts away to news reports about a woman who has disappeared from Northern Lights and is presumed dead. Will all become clear at the end? Will Lo survive?

Though Lo comes across as an unreliable narrative at times, and an emotional mess nearly all the time, you have to credit her with dogged perseverance, even though she fears, rightly enough, that her life is in danger. She also deserves credit for not allowing her psychological problems to destroy her integrity. Is she “likeable”? Many readers say not. To me, that doesn’t matter, because her story was compelling, and I dare say there are very many people out there who must deal with similar sorts of emotional issues.

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Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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