It’s a Mystery: The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society (Secret, Book, & Scone Society #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although it may not be official, ever since Fried Green Tomatoes, circa 1991, became a hit book and movie, a growing sub genre under the heading “cozy mysteries” appears to have developed. Most of these books sport catchy and cutesy titles (Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society et al), revolve around a reasonably complex local mystery, and feature small teams of flawed but strong and charming women who are determined to set things right. Sometimes a touch of magical realism is present to spice up the plot. The Secret, Book, and Scone Society, by Ellery Adams, fits squarely into this category.

The title derives from the businesses and past histories of four women protagonists living in Miracle, North Carolina, all of whom are trying to forget painful pasts and get on with their lives as best they can. Although they patronize each other’s shops, they don’t really bond until a man, a newcomer to town who briefly crosses paths with them, winds up dead on the town’s railroad tracks. Was he murdered, did he jump, or was he pushed? This questions bothers them as individuals, and in the immediate aftermath of the death, they decide to band together to discover, or uncover, the truth. During this process, the back story of each woman emerges as they develop trust, understanding, and support for each other. The mystery, involving murder and fraud, serves as the vehicle through which Ellery Adams develops her central characters, who become relatable and loveable in spite of, and because of their all too human flaws. While ancillary characters do lean toward the stereotypical, and the mystery is not all that difficult to solve, the main quartet and the actions they take are more than strong enough to maintain the interest of readers to the end.

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It’s a Mystery: The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg

The Ice Princess (Patrik Hedström, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Modern Noir is not my favorite genre. Although mysteries in this category generally tell compelling stories, they do so in a way that can be disturbing. It’s not the darkness so much as the graphic brutality that bothers me, but if the writing is good enough, I’ll stick with it and skim over the worst of the details. Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is dark and cold, in keeping with Nordic noir, but considerably less gruesome than many.

Though billed as a mystery, this novel is character rather than plot driven. The police, of course, make an early appearance, but the book’s protagonist is definitely Erica Falck, a biographer who has returned to her childhood home in Fjällbacka, Sweden for the funeral of her parents. Erica stays on to clear up her parents affairs and work on her overdue manuscript in a quiet place, and, as happens to many during the grieving process, begins to reevaluate her own life choices. But her plans are soon disrupted when her childhood friend, the beautiful Alex, is found frozen solid in her  bathtub with slashed wrists. Alex’s family requests that Erica write a piece in memory of their daughter’s life, and she begins by interviewing Alex’s friends. As new information and old memories are stirred up, Erica cannot believe that Alex died by her own hand. When the detective on the case turns out to be Patrik Hedstrom, another school chum, they combine their efforts to discover the truth.

The procedural part of the plot, until the final few chapters, is submerged in a tangle of sub-stories. These include smaller mysteries: why is Erica’s married sister no longer the free spirit she was as a girl? Why did Alex’s family abruptly leave town when the girls were in high school. What happened to the son of Fjallbacka’s wealthiest family abruptly disappear? These threads are intriguing, but there were far too many pages devoted to detailing a personal relationship that threatened to turn a murder mystery into a romance novel. The solution to the mystery was one that readers – at least this reader – could not have hypothesized because some missing clues. Nevertheless, the characters and setting in The Ice Princess were interesting enough to prompt me to try the next book in the series, The Preacher.

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The Edinburgh Witches Well

Back in June, I came across an interesting article on Atlas Obscura, featuring a little noticed spot, near the entrance to the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, where there stands a small drinking fountain. Between the 15th and 18th centuries,  hundreds of women, accused of witchcraft, were executed on this spot, close to what is now Ramsay Garden. Scotland’s King James VI was a devoted persecutor of witches, and during the satanic panic that gripped Europe during that time span, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Most were women, though regardless of gender all were denied proper trials and subjected to burning at the stake, and in the later years, to hanging.

By 1894, the forward thinking philanthropist, Sir Philip Geddes, commissioned John Duncan to design a small fountain to memorialize the victims.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The small plaque explains the major design elements. Duncan was an admirer of Celtic art and legend, interests that are reflected in his use of dualism to highlight the opposites of good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and that each story has two sides. The relief displays two heads representing the accused.  There is the image of a Foxglove plant from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, The God of Medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the Goddess of Health. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff known as a caduceus, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil. The years 1479 and 1722 are shown at upper left and bottom right, and two bolts in the upper corners show the Wiccan symbols of air and water. The hole below the serpent’s head dispensed water.

The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the evil eye with frowning eyes and nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

I love symbolism in art and am very glad this monument is there to commemorate the terrible scourge of the witchcraft delusion. I do wish, however, that the plaque more explicitly condemned what happened there to all those innocent victims.  I also wish that I’d known about the fountain when we visited Edinburgh several years back.

 

 

It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.

Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

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.