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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It’s a Mystery: The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault

The Broken Teaglass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any author who can stimulate a reader’s interest in reading about her main characters reading the dictionary is pretty darned good, and that’s exactly what Emily Arsenault has accomplished in her debut novel, The Broken Teaglass. The narrator is a new college grad, Billy Webb, who is perplexed about where a philosophy major might find his place in the world. He grows even more perplexed when he finds himself accepting a job as editorial assistant at an iconic dictionary publishing house, which is quiet as a tomb. For folks who work with words, the staff is remarkably reclusive and laconic, but Billy manages to befriend another young assistant, Mona Minot. A large part of their work involves finding new words and defining new uses of old words, which requires much research in the company’s library of ten million word “citations”. In the process, they happen upon a series of “cits” written by a Dolores Beekmim, which when read together appear to form a confession to a nebulous yet disturbing crime. Under Mona’s prodding, Billy joins her in a painstaking search to discover who wrote the cits and committed what seems to have been murder, without tipping off their colleagues, who, after all, may have been involved in the crime.

As a mystery, the book is not particularly suspenseful, but along the way, the two protagonists reveal much about themselves, twining a coming of age thread into the mix. Essentially, all the characters are intelligent but socially inept versions of, well, nerds, partly due to the exacting and dry nature of their work as lexicographers. There are some scenes featuring Billy’s hippy neighbors, but their role in the story never becomes important. As much fun as following the mystery plot is learning about the nuts and bolts of dictionary writing – who gets to decide if new words are “real” and which of them should be included in upcoming revisions. The Broken Teaglass might not be your cup of tea if you’re looking for action and adventure, but for readers like me who love words, it makes for quirky and fascinating reading.

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It’s a Mystery: Surrender, New York, by Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disgraced criminologist Dr. Trajan Jones, formerly of the NYPD, has set up shop with his business partner/friend, Dr. Mike Li, in the village of Surrender in upstate New York, where the duo teaches online forensic science courses and takes on private cases for investigation. Trajan bases his methods on those of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, protagonist of author Carr’s fine breakout novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Having lost a leg to cancer in his youth, Jones has psychological issues of his own and must deal with constant pain and the possibility of relapse. As a character, he shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, including the annoying traits of arrogance and irascibility. As the novel’s narrator, Trajan is also prone digressing into lengthy lectures about science, literature, and human foibles. Mike Li, on the other hand, is relatively free of heavy baggage, and is much more genuine colleague than Dr. Watson ever was, though he does offer a sense of humor and steady emotional support and when needed.

The complex plot is replete with other colorful characters, most notably the irrepressible, teenaged “consulting detective Lucas, and Marcianna, the beloved cheetah that Trajan rescued from an abusive petting zoo. Both provide relief from the intensity of Trajan and Mike’s current case, which involves the deaths of a series of “throwaway children”, homeless kids left behind when their parents simply deserted them. It soon becomes clear that the Empire State’s senior politicos understand the depth of this problem but simply don’t care, preferring to cover it up. Trajan and Mike determine to rectify this situation no matter whom they must take down and how much resistance they encounter.

Plot, setting, and characters blend well together, but at times not well enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings. One is its heavy use of profanity, especially the f word, which peppers every chapter regardless of who is talking. Trajan is also overly fond of the word “indeed” and the use of convoluted sentences when simpler and shorter ones would do just as well. Finally, the book is just too long, and the many suspenseful and/or gruesome scenes are interspersed with passages overloaded with detail.