Historical Fiction: The Taster, by V. S. Alexander

The Taster


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been several years since I last picked up a novel about the horrors of WWII, but this particular plot drew me back to the genre. Magda Ritter, though not a Nazi sympathizer, needs a job, and following a rigorous vetting process, is chosen to “go into service” for Hitler. Expecting to be a house servant, she is appalled and terrified when selected to be one of the crew of fifteen women who have the great honor of “testing” Hitler’s food for poison before each of his meals. From that moment, Magda is in a state of perpetual anxiety, frightened that each bite might bring about her death. Residing at the Berghof, the Fuhrer’s eastern headquarters, means protection from the dangers of war and plenty of good food. It also means constant surveillance by the SS, and perpetual worry over whom among the staff can be trusted. Everyone harbors secrets, any of which might prove to be deadly.

What this novel does exceedingly well is portray the terrible uncertainties that pervade “ordinary” life in fearful and extraordinary circumstances. As Magda goes about her work, she gradually learns about the unthinkable atrocities inflicted by the Nazis on the populace, and as she comes face to face herself with some of them, it becomes possible for the reader to experience through her the horrific stresses that descend upon those who are powerless to foresee, control, or even avoid them. It is this position of utter helplessness under constant menace, a circumstance that most of us rarely, or perhaps never, have to experience, that provides a glimpse into the lives of countless German citizens trying to survive during the final year of the Nazi regime.

The general public is always presented by the media with a sanitized version of war. The Taster presents slivers of the truth, based upon the memoirs of one of Hitler’s tasters.

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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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.

 

Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: Eye of the Storm, by Marcia Muller

Eye of the Storm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eye of the Storm is the 8th title in the PI Sharon McCone series. which to date contains more than thirty entries. Sharon is confident in her professional skills, but a bit bummed by the trough into which her personal life seems mired. She hasn’t seen her sister Patsy in quite some time, and when she sends an SOS requesting her help, Sharon travels to Appleby’s Island in the Sacramento Delta. Patsy is working with friends to convert the decrepit mansion, complete with its own ghost, into a posh vacation resort, and a series of puzzling disturbances is threatening the viability of the plans. Sharon runs into the front edge of an massive and ominous storm on her drive, one that will play a big role her investigation.

This is a fairly straightforward, almost simplistic plot. The book’s opening gets seriously bogged down with a much too detailed back-story about Patsy and Sharon’s life long relationship. Once on the island, thing start to pick up. The ghost makes several appearances, but it’s still a while before the first of two murders occurs. The second is fairly predictable. Now the story morphs into a variation on the locked room scenario, as Sharon frantically works to uncover the killer’s identity. The suspense builds, but only mildly.

For me, the show was stolen by the time period in which it is set, at the end of the era just before the advent of the personal computer and cell phone. Sharon’s job, though she doesn’t, of course, know it, is much more complex in terms of information gathering and communication than it would be now, especially when the power goes out.

Marcia Muller has been honored with several prestigious awards. Her competent character, Sharon McCone, was a ground breaker at a time when nearly all fictional PIs were men. There are also several strong females in the story, and interestingly, a very weak man. Though somewhat dated, Eye is a fun look back at the way things were.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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Historical Fiction: The Yanks are Starving, by Glen Craney

The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Great Depression. My mother grew up during the hardscrabble 1930’s, and told tales about what life was like. The fears from that decade never left her. I don’t recall her ever telling us about the Bonus Army, however, and reading The Yanks Are Starving was my first exposure to a shameful incident in America’s 20th century history. Many of the “doughboys” who fought in WWI were unemployed during the Depression. They were each entitled to “bonus pay” for their military service, but their certificates would not mature until 1945. Impoverished and desperate, the soldiers banded together to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The Bonus Army was was lead by former army sergeant Walter W. Waters, who is one of the main characters in Glen Craney’s novel.

The book opens before the first world war, and in alternating chapters, introduces Waters and seven other characters, many of whom became household names. Among them are Black Jack Pershing, Herbert “Bert” Hoover, and Douglas MacArthur. It was fun reading about their lives before they became major players. As America enters the war, these characters converge, their battlefield experiences nothing short of heart-stopping. Similarly, their post-war lives are followed, until the Depression forces them to band together once again. It seems likely that the story of the Bonus Army was suppressed because no one wanted to remember the violence perpetrated upon them by their own government in their own capitol city.

Glen Craney has taken the facts of their lives to shape strong and memorable characters. He relates their story with vivid realism, particularly through dialog, and it is clear that he knows his history. Good historical novels like this one, well composed and founded upon sound research, provide enjoyable but valuable ways of learning about our not-so-distant past.

It’s a Mystery: The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #11)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, reeling from the traumatic outcomes of his last few cases, has retired and moved to the insulated country village of Three Pines with his wife, Reine Marie. (It makes one wonder why he’d choose a spot where murder happens on a ongoing basis, but there you have it.) Their peace and joy are suddenly marred, however, when a young boy is found murdered in the woods. Gamache takes on a mystery of global proportions as the facts of the death come to light, in his unaccustomed role of consultant to his successor, Chief Inspector Isabelle LaCoste. What they find is a huge rocket launcher, buried in the underbrush, and etched with a horrific image of the Biblical Whore of Babylon. And it’s aimed at the United States.

How do an imaginative child, two secret service clerks, a retired physics professor, a Vietnam era draft dodger, and a serial killer figure into this story? As is usual in a Louise Penny novel, time will reveal all, with a lot of input from Gamache and company. There are some chilling scenes in this novel, as when he interviews the fiendish serial killer, as well as some additional murders. And as usual, the ending is satisfying, leaving no pesky loose ends, but it also leaves some disturbing moral ambiguities. Thought provoking as always and well worth reading, based upon a true situation.

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It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

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