Tag Archives: murder

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende explores three individuals whose lives inexplicably intersect via a freak winter storm, a sick cat, and a run to the market for diapers. There’s 60 year old Richard Bowmaster who is living in a fog after tragically losing his Brazilian wife and child. His coworker and tenant, 62 year old Lucia Maraz, has survived her own life of upheavals in Chili, escaping the danger by moving to Canada and emigrating to the United States. Finally there’s 23 year old Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented refugee from Guatemala assisting a disabled boy whose father is involved in questionable business practices.

When Evelyn “borrows” her boss’s Lexus for a quick run to the supermarket, she’s caught in the “wrong place at the wrong time” when Richard’s car skids into the rear of the vehicle. Panicking, she ends up at his home, terrified of the consequences when her temporarily out of town employer returns home. Somehow Louisa and Evelyn end up with Richard in his apartment huddling together through the night while a freak blizzard rages across Brooklyn and into the surrounding regions. It’s not just the minor fender bender, but what’s inside the trunk that has them all in a sweat despite the cold.

Thus begins a bizarre road trip to an isolated location far away from the boundaries of the “incident” to get rid of the evidence. Close quarters and fear create the perfect environment for confidences as the three tell their personal stories and develop an unbreakable bond through this illicit deed. Back in Brooklyn is the “rest of the story” providing closure long after the threesome have resolved their accidental dilemma.

I’d like to highlight Lucia’s tale involving the Military coup d’etat in Chili in 1973 where President Salvador Allende was overthrown by armed forces and the national police. It is not a coincidence that the author’s last name is also Allende since this leader was Isabel’s “uncle” which endangered not only her life, but those of loved ones. I’m sure this particular tale invoked some strong emotions from Isabel’s past when she was actively involved in helping those on the “wanted” list find safe passage, which is inherently reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the characters in this novel.

There was a lot to take in (almost too much to absorb) as the atrocities in Lucia’s and Evelyn’s childhoods are revealed. It is almost impossible to imagine living a life of terror, waiting for someone you love to be killed, or worse, not knowing whether or not the missing are still alive – not to mention your own dangers in an unstable country. Intertwined is the scenarios of those loved ones who influenced the decisions of the trio.

Without maintaining a specific focus on the immigration issue which is currently stalled in Congress, the reader is still left to ponder the attitude of American society towards undocumented workers who have fled their beloved homeland in order to stay safe, as well as the belligerence towards their children who were brought up in this country and know no other home.

While these timely issues make this a must read book (please note the President mentioned the violent M-13 in his 2018 State of the Union Address), I did have difficulty with the choppiness of the story as the plot flipped back and forth between the three main characters revealing their backgrounds piecemeal. I actually cheated and skipped ahead to read each biography in full (one at a time) which gave me a better understanding of their motivations. Oops, sorry Isabel. Allende had the difficult task of condensing their lives into a relatively brief narrative when each of the characters could have easily filled the pages of their own book (including some of the minor players). The conclusion neatly wraps up the details with a bit of poetic justice and a touch of romance thrown into the mix.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for proving an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Bad Luck Bride by Jane Goodger (The Brides of St Ives, Book 1)

In the Bad Luck Bride, Lady Alice Hubbard, Granddaughter of a Duke and an Earl, is once again left at the altar. Her first husband-to-be died just prior to the nuptials, her second fiancĂ© had to beg off when her father discovered this future son-in-law was a scam artist, and the third? He simply did not show up. Instead of feeling humiliated (well, maybe a little), Alice is almost relieved, despite her new moniker “The Bad Luck Bride”. Truth be told, while she was fond of each of these potential mates, it wasn’t love that led to any of the betrothals. Then, on the carriage ride home, who should hitch a ride but Henderson Southwell, her late brother’s best friend and the true object of her affections. Henderson (Henny) has been gone the past four years, disappearing to India after Joseph’s tragic death. Now he claims to have returned in order to stop the wedding. Everyone laughs, but he is not really joking. Alice has always been in his heart, not realizing the feelings were reciprocal. Ditto for Alice. Via a series of complications, including the return of suitor number three, hat in hand, Alice and Henny somehow find their way to romance. Subplots include a possible murder(s), an attempt to raise funds for famine relief in India, a knitting club of girlfriends, and a budding friendship with an eccentric, neighboring Earl.

Set in a seaside town, this is Book One in the Brides of St Ives series. Jane Goodger throws a lot of story at us, never quite developing the possibilities before picking up another subplot. The profession of love doesn’t occur until the second half the book, necessitating continued repetition of thoughts, as the two main characters wrest with their feelings. Feelings which they then discuss in detail with their friends. Of course, the fact that Henderson has an unknown father and is not part of the nobility is a complication not easy to overcome. With his grandparents funding he was able to attend Eton and thus made friends with Joseph and his buddies. The Hubbards welcomed Henny into their home, with their house being preferable to living with an indifferent, distant mother. Yet, being accepted as a friend is very different than marrying into the family, as Henderson suddenly discovers.

While I’m willing to give some leeway when an author is introducing the characters in a new series, it is still their first obligation to create an intriguing story for the readers. There was so much potential in the various subplots, but their “resolutions” were disappointing. Set in the late 1870’s, this Victorian Romance unsuccessfully explores the distinction between classes and the entitlement of the nobility. The inconsistent attitudes of Alice’s parents towards Henderson is an example of just one of the many question marks I had when completing this novel. Hopefully some of these blanks will be filled in by other books in the series.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite the spate of novels recently published dealing with the topic of WWII, the subject matter never gets boring. There are so many facets to the war that each book can easily tackle a new concept to explore. In Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly the author utilizes the lives of three intersecting characters to explore the Holocaust, two based on real people and one a fictionalized version representing true events.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite devoting her life to helping the orphans in France. Working full time as a volunteer at the French Embassy in New York City, she assisted individuals in securing visas in order to escape France before the war began. In German occupied Lublin, Poland, Kasha Kuzmerick and various friends and family members get swept up as political prisoners. Sent to Ravensbruck, Kashia and her sister Zuzanna, end up the subjects for a medical laboratory experiment involving battle wounds, which leaves Kashia with a permanent limp. The surgery is performed by Herta Oberheuser, one of the few female doctors in Germany, who was recruited to work at this Women’s Concentration Camp and assigned to perform the operations which permanently maimed or killed the Polish “Rabbits”. Her attitude is fascinating as Herta convinces herself that working for the Nazis is a positive position which furthers the aims of the Fatherland. Yet before the Allies take control, she is involved in a plot to hunt down and murder these covertly hidden patients in order to remove the evidence of her actions. Even at the Nuremberg Trials, Dr Oberheuser still refuses to accept blame for her inhumane behaviors and resents her prison sentence.

The Lilac Girls also explores the after effects of WWII, both immediately following the war and ten years later. Unfortunately, society wanted to move forward and forget the atrocities, but luckily there were many philanthropic individuals ready to help the afflicted integrate back into a somewhat normal life. While this was possible in parts of Europe and the United States, the countries taken over by the Soviet Union, including Poland, went from one oppressive state to another. Caroline, with her connections, is able to find a way to coordinate medical treatment for the “Rabbits” in the United States and encourages the bitter Kashia to find closure.

Alternating between the three female characters, Kelly integrates fiction with information from historical documents to create a realistic scenario. It is heartwarming that women such as Caroline and her mother were able to use their influence for the public good with a focus on those suffering abroad. At the same time, one wonders how Herta could reconcile her actions with her conscience. There is evidence that her outward bravado covered a guilty heart when her visit with a psychiatrist revealed a predisposition for self mutilation (cutting her arm). The fictional sisters were an astute representation of the Polish girls who survived the “Rabbit” experience. While it was heart wrenching to read about their treatment in Ravensbruck, it is a reminder that war can bring out the evil in people, especially when dealing with prisoners of war who are viewed as subhuman. This is definitely not a book for those with sensitive stomachs.

I have several confessions to make. First, I did not necessarily read the chapters in order. Kelly often left a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then jumped to one of the other women, but I was impatient and skipped over to the continuation of that particular plot point, then went back to pick up the storyline. I also thought the entire book dragged at times. I didn’t mind the fictional romance for Caroline, but for a book close to 500 pages, I thought some of the irrelevant details could have been eliminated. There was plenty of subject matter without adding fluff. The most compelling part of the book was the girls’ daily trials in Ravensbruck which were both difficult to read and, at the same time, hard to put down. While the therapeutic visit to the United States was anticlimactic, the concluding chapters seemed a fitting way to wrap up the loose ends. I appreciated all the specifics in the author’s note which indicated the amount of research (including interviews and traveling to the various locales) necessary to blend real events with her imaginings, although to get further details about the inspiration for this book you need to go to Martha Hall Kelly’s website. Ultimately, the entire reading experience was worthwhile, especially since I learned something new about the Holocaust. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Ironweed by William Kennedy

When you hear the expression, the dead are always with us, it is meant figuratively, but in the life of Francis Phelan the phrase is literal. As a one-time grave digger, his dearly departed father (hit by a train) and shrew of a mother corpse are aware of his presence as he pays his respects to an infant son whose life was inadvertently cut short when Phelan’s slippery fingers dropped the baby on his head.

Francis began life as a talented young man who helped his neighbors and excelled at baseball, playing in the major leagues. He married and started a family, but life got in the way when during a union strike he killed one of the scab workers and ended up on the run. Eventually he returned home but with the death of baby Gregory he left for good, unable to face the consequences of his actions. Life as a vagrant became the norm, bumming drinks and cigarettes, hunting for a place to spend the night, wearing the same set of clothes until they fell apart at the seams with something as simple as a shoe lace becoming an expense beyond his means.

In 1938 jobs were scarce especially for drunkards who weren’t even allowed a cot at the Salvation Army (unless sober). Once again in Albany, Francis does a couple of day gigs to make a few bucks here and there which he wastes on booze. An angry drunk, there is still a bit of kindness in his heart as he places a blanket on a woman who ends up dead from the cold, and finds a place for his longtime friend Helen to sleep so she doesn’t meet the same fate. As he travels through the old neighborhood he is followed by the ghosts from his past giving him an opportunity to make amends for his numerous misdeeds.

Although beautifully descriptive with some subtle humor, Ironweed is definitely not a feel good book, filled with filth, sex, violence, and despair. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, I was taken aback at some of the crude, graphic sexual references despite their crass realism. Women do not come out on the good end of the stick, often using their “assets” for a hot meal and a warm place to sleep. The grittiness is a grim reminder that home and hearth are a privilege to be treasured.

William Kennedy wrote a series of books about Albany utilizing recurring characters or their descendants. A parallel book, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, involves a difficult predicament facing Phelan’s eldest son who meets up with his dad, convincing him that nobody in the family holds a grudge, then slipping him some funds and inviting him to stop by for a visit.

In Ironweed, Francis decides to purchase a turkey with these proceeds and arrives at his former home with this somewhat of a peace offering. His wife, Annie, remaining true to him over the past twenty two years, welcomes him back, no questions asked, for as long as he’s willing to stay. A visit to the attic locates a trunk filled with Phelan’s belongings, including a suit of clothes. Now cleaned up and snazzily dressed he saunters off to catch up with his derelict friends knowing he has an open invitation to return to his family if and when he chooses. Memories flood his mind as he visits old haunts, some not so pleasant, allowing a glimpse into his motivations even if they often lack commonsense. While the culminating events tug at ones heartstrings, there is a bit of hope that the future might hold some promise. (Spoiler alert: in Very Old Bones Phelan’s demise corresponds with his youthful endeavors – a fitting end of life passage.) Four and a half Stars.

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #8) by Louise Penny

Louise Penny is known for her murder mysteries, specifically those involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The Beautiful Mystery is book number eight in the series and for faithful readers there are several disturbing events which could easily be upsetting for those who’ve developed a bond with the central characters. As a newcomer, however, I had no expectations, although I was able to catch the gist of who was who and what was what from the narrative. References to former books in the series filled in the blanks, peaking my curiosity to perhaps go back to the beginning, especially since the first book, Still Life, is sitting on my counter (with a varied bunch of other titles) waiting to be read.

However, this is the one my Book Club picked, so this is the one I’ll discuss.

While the mystery comprises the predominant role in the plot, the interactions between the key players are a major component of the story. Inspector Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir head to a remote Gilbertine monestery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Louis on an Island in Quebec, to try to determine who killed Brother Matthieu, the choir director. Not just any choir director, but the man behind the CD of chants which took the world by storm. The once unheard of Cloister, now flush with enough cash to do some modernizations, became famous after their Gregorian Chants hit the top of the charts, upsetting the order of monks who willingly maintained a vow of silence. Which one of the hand selected two dozen monks would want to kill the rector who inspired such beauty? Even with the order of silence lifted, Gamache has a difficult time getting the monks to “talk”, but slowly he determines that appearances can be deceiving noticing that the calmness and serenity in this ancient order is somewhat of a facade.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Gamanche’s nemesis, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, the head of the Surete de Quebec, who likes to play mind games, successfully instilling anger and doubt into the minds of his subordinates. Mocking the detectives’ lack of success, he holds back the autopsy report indicating the true murder weapon which puts a different slant on the dead body found in the Abbot’s private garden. The best lead evolves around a weathered vellum full of unusual neumes and nonsense phrases in Latin which the rector was clutching. These neumes, a precursor of musical notes, indicate a haunting melody different from the normal chants. Their significance is another part of the mystery which borders more on a psychological drama than an action packed plot. It’s not until the last few pages that events begin to quickly happen leaving the reader with more than a few questions and the urge to read Mystery #9, How the Light Gets In, to discover how Penny resolves the conflict between the main characters. Four stars.

Heartland by Ana Simo

Our heroine was living for ten years off a grant to write a book, which she totally ignored until the last minute, when she began the process only to experience an oddity where she lost the ability to write words – from adjectives to adverbs to vowels and finally to nouns – leaving her unable to proceed. When her backers demanded proof that this book actually existed, she spread the word that she’d fled the country, hiding in her apartment disguised as an Asian gentleman until she finally decided to escape to her childhood retreat. The turning point was running into Mercy McCabe, the woman who stole away her beloved Bebe, the love of her life. Despite the fact that McCabe, after ten years, had broken up with their mutual love interest, our heroine is determined to exact revenge, murder to be exact.

The first step is to convince McCabe to come with her to Judge Wilkerson’s house, a swanky estate at the top of Round Hill in an affluent neighborhood of Elmira which is not too far from the Capital. It is here that our heroine spent her youth as her mother was the housekeeper for the Judge and his wife. Revisiting this haven and establishing a routine of caring for the home, reminiscent of her deceased mother’s tasks, doesn’t deter her from her ultimate plans, even as she comes to care for her companion. Since McCabe is a wealthy SoHo art dealer, she is established as the “owner” of this “rental” property with our heroine the servant, along with the cook/maid, a fellow Latina, who is hired to care for them. Eventually our heroine wants to visit her childhood home in Shangri La, a Hispanic community on the outskirts of Elmira, which isn’t important enough to be included on the area map. She gets caught in a blizzard, seeking inadequate protection from the elements, waking up back on the hill with bandaged frostbitten legs and feet. Unable to walk, McCabe, whose appearance and personality have changed due to an apparent illness, tenderly cares for the invalid over a period of weeks – lovingly washing and bandaging her wounds, emptying her bed pan, and feeding her healthy broths to build up her strength. Our heroine begins to develop positive feelings towards her Protector, but just as she starts to feel better, McCabe disappears without a trace. Frantic to find details of Mercy’s whereabouts, she goes to town visiting the library, “pumping” Mrs Crandall, the librarian, for information (while carrying on a torrid affair in off hours). Despite her desperate attempts to lure McCabe back to the Judge’s house, she still has plans for her execution, setting up a funeral pyre in the old ice house in preparation for the big event. Who shows up when the doorbell rings on Christmas Day is a unexpected climax where the events which unfold culminate in confusion and a less than satisfying ending to this saga.

Don’t worry, even though our heroine loses her ability to write, the author, Ana Simo, has pocketed all those verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and nouns and gone into overdrive as she wrote Heartland. When I describe her writing style as verbose and even over the top, I am referring to the act of wading through an excess of verbiage to figure out the plot. To make things even more confusing is the intermix of a dystopia starting with The Great Hunger in 1984 where the world as we know it has experienced some sort of trauma which has destroyed a whole swath of areas, leaving behind what is left of the major cities. None of this, or anything else for that matter, is explained, so the reader must come to their own conclusions. The heroine’s homosexual obsession with her former love interests, both childhood and adult sweethearts, as well as with the current well endowed librarian, seems to feed a mania which borders on insanity. Whether you want to read the ramblings of an unstable woman who rants crazy, racist expletives, depends on your stamina. Despite its relatively short length, this book is not a quick read and I’m not sure if there’s an audience for this psychopathic, violent tale of an imaginary version of our “heartland”. Not for the faint of heart.

Two stars and a thank you to Edelweiss, Restless Books, and the author for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.