It’s a Mystery: The Fabric of Sin, by Phil Rickman

The Fabric of Sin (Merrily Watkins, #9)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery to me why Phil Rickman remains largely unknown in America, seeing as how he’s a very talented writer who combines the mystery, paranormal, and historical fiction genres like nobody else. His Merrily Watkins series, set in present day England, features a female vicar charged with being the “deliverance” (read “exorcism”) minister in her parish and its environs. Merrily has a daughter, a young teen in the earlier novels and a young woman in the latest, and a significant other, former rock legend Lol Turner, who play prominent roles in all her deliverance activities. Other colorful characters from the church and the village round out the cast. Rickman’s characters are always richly developed, whether they are pro-or-an-tagonists.

In The Fabric of Sin, the action is placed in the Duchy of Cornwall, the province of Prince Charles, who looms large in the background of this investigation. The Reverend Mrs. Watkins is called out to look into a frightening paranormal incident that took place at the Master House in remote Garway. The Duchy owns this ancient property, rumored to have been inhabited by none other than the Knights Templar, and wants to clear matters up so that its restoration can continue unencumbered. Merrily finds this easier said than done, since the church, the villagers, and the Duchy all have their own hidden agendas. As usual, Mr. Rickman incorporates authentic and vivid atmosphere, historical background, psychological suspense, and subtle supernatural elements to produce an engrossing set of mysteries and murders for Merrily to tackle. This is a series that never disappoints.

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Here She Is —the Real Rosie the Riveter

post updated 4/26/15

This article was originally posted in 2009, and, in light of the sad news of Mary Keefe’s death this week, at the age of 92, thought it only right to update it today. Ms. Keefe is an American icon, and will always be remembered as Rosie. Not a bad legacy to leave !

One of the famous iconic images from World War II is Norman Rockwell’s poster of Rosie the Riveter. The painting, for which now-79 year old Mary Doyle Keefe posed twice and was paid $10, came to embody the can-do attitude of American women whose work helped win the war. Full story here .

post updated 10/1/09

Historical Fiction: The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith

The Clever Mill Horse (CMH, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1700’s, most Americans relied upon linen for their everyday textile needs; cotton had to be imported and was costly enough to be considered a luxury fabric. By 1830, however, the invention of an efficient cotton gin and the emergence of Southern cotton plantations led to a reversal in that state of affairs. But what if an efficient flax gin had been invented first?

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a historical coming-of-age tale built around that question, set in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Ella Kenyon is an unusual young woman, one who feels more at home in the woods than the town. Her beloved grandfather, a blacksmith by trade, has helped her develop an unusual talent for engineering, and together they design a machine that can extract linen fibers from the plant. When her grandfather dies suddenly, Ella is determined to perfect and patent their flax gin. The Clever Mill Horse is the tale of her struggle to achieve that goal. On her long journey to Washington City, she must face countless obstacles, among them forest fires, horse thieves, accidents and illness, and unscrupulous lawyers. Before her journey ends, Ella will discover the truth about who she really is and why.

Ms. Lew-Smith fills her story with vibrant characters, vivid descriptions, and realistic dialog, She is skilled at evoking a sense of time and place. Does Ella achieve her mission? Yes and no. Now that so many things in her young life have changed, in what direction will she head?

This book, the first in a promised series, is suitable for adults and young adults alike.

Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.

Bad Girls: Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to grasp the fact that Yoko Ono Lennon is 80 years old. Born in Tokyo in 1933, she and her parents moved between Asia and the US as demanded by the dictates of her father’s banking job. They were in Japan during WWII and suffered the deprivations common during war. In the early 1950’s, the Onos settled in Scarsdale, NY. Yoko attended Sarah Lawrence College, and to the dismay of her parents, embarked on a “Bohemian” life style as an artist. Yoko married a composer and attempted suicide after the marriage failed. In 1962, she married again, giving birth to a daughter, and despite marital strife, stayed with her husband for several more years, pursuing her career and leaving child care responsibilities to him.

In 1969, everything changed for Yoko when she met John Lennon, who attended one of her art exhibits. Lennon was attracted to her avant garde attitude towards both art and life, but their relationship did not heat up for a couple of years. When their affair finally began, and Lennon divorced his wife, public outrage was enormous. John and Yoko married in 1969, at the height of the peace/love/drugs movement, and became the most famous couple in the world, demonstrating for their beliefs with flamboyance, via a bed-in, naked photos, appearing in public wearing bags, and other in-your-face antics. The Lennons were flattered by their inclusion on President Nixon’s infamous anti-American list. Lennon insisted that Yoko participate in his music, though she was not especially gifted in that area, and when the Beatles ultimately broke up, disappointed fans held Yoko responsible. The couple was widely criticized for their treatment of Julian, Lennon’s son from his first marriage. Yoko’s former husband, believing that Lennon was a harmful influence on his daughter, kidnapped her from Yoko’s custody and refused to permit any contact. Attempts were being made to deport Lennon for drug use, and for a time, the marriage foundered.

The following year, Yoko and John reconciled, and their only child, Sean Lennon, was born. Shortly after the release of a joint album, John was murdered in front of their apartment at the Dakota in NYC.

For years, animosity toward Yoko continued, but she never gave up her artistic and social endeavors. She created a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, Strawberry Fields, and the John Lennon Museum in Japan. Yoko recently has instituted a $50,000 Peace Prize for Palestinian and Israeli artists. Now 75, Yoko Ono has finally been given credit and recognition for her artistic and political contributions, and has reconciled with her daughter. It’s tempting to wonder what her reception might have been had she been Caucasian and beautiful.

Great Historical Fiction: The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When she was sixteen, living on her family’s farm outside of London, Laurel Nicolson saw her beloved mother committing the murder of a stranger. Although Laurel’s own testimony established that it was done in self defense, her parents never fully explained why it happened. Now Laurel, a successful actress, is in her 60’s, and her mother is dying. This is her last chance to discover the truth about this dark family secret.

The Secret Keeper is wonderfully labrynthine novel, which, as it progresses through its various stages, is told and retold from the perspectives of three women. There is Laurel herself, speaking mostly in the present time, explaining things as she understood them then and how she interprets them now. Her mother, Dorothy, relates her own version of events as they unfolded during the Blitz in WWII. An alternate version is provided, also from 1940’s London, by Dorothy’s glamorous friend Vivian. All three are remarkably captivating individuals, and, every step of the way, author Morton surrounds them with an array of vibrant supporting characters. The bulk of the action takes place in wartime London, which comes alive in all the life and death peril of the bombings.

Although some reviewers have remarked that the secret was a fairly easy one to guess, I was unable to figure everything out until close to the end. When the truth becomes apparent, it’s very bittersweet, and very satisfying. Having read all three of Kate Morton’s earlier books, I feel confident in describing her writing as literary, elegant and eloquent, and she creates memorable stories bursting with life. She’s a terrific novelist, well worth reading.

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Modern Lit: The Wishing Thread, by Lisa Van Allen

The Wishing Thread

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tarrytown, NY, a mere twenty five miles from Manhattan, abounds with legend, folklore, and history. The village of Sleepy Hollow, named for the famous story by Washington Irving, was called North Tarrytown until 1996, when the name was changed by the vote of the populace. It is here that Lisa Van Allen has set The Wishing Thread.

Aubrey Van Ripper has two sisters, but it’s always been assumed that she would take over The Stitchery, a yarn shop that’s been in the family for two centuries. Aubrey’s never left Sleepy Hollow, but her sisters, spooked by the tradition that the Van Rippers can knit garments for their customers that will make their fondest wishes come true. Some say the Van Rippers are swindlers; other say they’re witches. When Aubrey’s aunt dies, her sisters Bitty and Meggy return for the funeral, and are shocked to learn that the aunt has left the property to all three of them, with the stipulation that they all agree on its future. Each of the sisters has her own share of problems, secrets, and dreams. Unable to reach an agreement, their relationships with each other are challenged to the breaking point. Seems there is no magic to be knitted up to resolve this conflict. Can Aubrey continue to believe? Has she ever truly believed?

Gracefully written and evocative of past and present, The Wishing Thread is about family ties, learning to be oneself, and the power of love and hope. Knitters will love this story, but there’s much to enjoy for non-knitters as well.

(Note: Historically, there are many old traditions based upon the belief that knitting can be used to “work charms and spells with.”)

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