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Historical Fiction Review – The Women in the Castle

March 6th, 2018

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Review by Gail P. (TinkerPirate)

I approached The Women in the Castle with great personal interest.  The story is set in my husband’s homeland – Germany.  He was born in Berlin two months after V-E Day.  His Mutti was born and raised in Berlin.  While she tells “family” stories, she doesn’t like to talk about what Germany was like during the rise of Hitler and only a little more about what it was like to live in East Berlin following the war. I thought the book might provide some insight into her early adulthood.   

The book opens at a party in an old castle in Bavaria.  Germany is finally recovering from the World War.  Instead of a complete feeling of hopefulness for the future, you find under tones of conflict.  Uniformed Nazis stand beside others who sense Hitler is a danger to Germany and their way of life.  Lines are being drawn between support or resistance to Hitler.  

The castle is the once grand home of Albrecht von Lingenfels’ family.  He, his wife, Marianne, and their three children are attending the party.  Also attending is Marianne’s childhood friend, Martin Constantine (“Connie”) Fledermann, and his fiancée, Benita.  During a quiet moment of the party, they discuss where they stand.  Albrecht and Connie will take active roles in the resistance and Marianne will be the “Commander of Wives and Children”.  She chafes at the title thinking it is a passive role.  

Several years later, after Albrecht and Connie are hung for their participation in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Marianne discovers her role is much more active and emotionally demanding than she had once thought.  Finding and protecting fellow resistance widows and their children is not easy.  It will take all of her determination, stamina, and wits to carry out her assignment.

Marianne first finds Martin, Connie and Benita’s son in a Nazi reeducation home.  Together, they find his mother in the bombed out remains of a Berlin apartment house where she has been kept by Russian soldiers who used her body for entertainment.  Despite all her efforts, Marianne was only able to locate one other resistance widow, Ania, and her two children, who are rescued from a camp for displaced persons.  The three widows and their six children eke out a life in the remains of the von Lingenfels castle.  

Marianne believes their shared losses will allow them to face an uncertain future united.  But, each of the widows have their individual way of handling daily interact with people who were once Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.  Through a series of flashbacks, you learn the back story of Marianne, Benita, and Ania which allows you to understand the differences in how they moved forward.

The three eventually go their separate ways.  Marianne feels betrayed by the choice Benita makes and actions Ania takes.  Benita and Ania feel judged by Marianne’s strict black-and-white view of the world.  In the end, Marianne understands the part she played in the destruction of her makeshift family and a partial reconciliation is achieved with the help of their children.

In addition to providing a compelling story, the book also offers two additional things. First, it offers its readers an opportunity to reflect on how they would maintain their own humanity in the face of fear, personal harm, and human atrocities.  Secondly, readers are offered an opportunity to compare that with a narrative demonstrating how good people can become Nazis.  

Did it provide insight into what my Mutti-in-Law experienced? No. But, it made me look at myself and the world differently and I hope I am a better person for it. 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Moonstone

March 5th, 2018

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Historians of the whodunit called this well-known novel the first mystery. The central crime is a theft, with a killing only near the end, but the novel introduced hallmarks that the genre later became famous for: plot and action over characterization or theme; the shrewd sowing of clues; the wacky detective; the amateur sleuths making a hash of the investigation; a suspenseful working up to the exciting reveal.

One attraction of the novel is that it begins in the genial voice of an old house-steward. He is the kind of the reader who reads over and over one book, Robinson Crusoe, like Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has The Last Days of Pompeii. Then the second part is a completely different voice, that of religious hypocrite spinster. The rest of the novel is also told in eight other first-person voices, showing Collins’ willingness to challenge himself in his craft.

Another plus: Collins consciously wrote with female readership in mind, like Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner. Mystery luminary Dorothy Sayers said he was “one of the very few male writers who can write realistically about women without prejudice and about sex without exaggeration.”

The downsides are three and do not outweigh the pleasure of reading. The plot hinges on an improbable event. It is rather slow at the two-thirds point. It lacks a really strong female character and a rip-roaring villain. So no Marian Halcombe or Count Fosco as in The Woman in White. No Magdalen Vanstone, no Captain Horatio Wragge as in No Name.

The Moonstone was written when Collins was at his peak, the late 1860s, after The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and before Man and Wife (1870). After 1870, his health suffered and he became opioid-dependent. Though he never wrote a barking bad novel, his work suffered and his later novels are read only by hardcore readers like us.

Like The Woman in White, this novel was immensely popular in its own day, the late 1860s. It lives in the present day, with over 50,000 ratings and almost 3,000 reviews at Goodreads. The Moonstone has survived because of discerning readers like us, who read for the sheer pleasure of it.

 

 

 

Fiction Review – The Lake House

March 1st, 2018

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, The Distant Hours, and The Forgotten Garden each made me a genuine fan of the Australian author.  With some historical accounts and modern-day connections, Morton delivers novels with suspense and characters with so many facets you wonder if you’ll ever really figure them out. When I had a chance to attend an author event for Morton a couple of years ago I was so excited, and she did not disappoint.  Kate was down to earth and spoke honestly about the ups and downs of being a writer.  She also spoke about how she would get intrigued by real life events and become inspired to write, which is how she got some ideas for The Lake House.

The Lake House begins in 1933 at the estate of the Edevane family.  During the night of their midsummer party, the family’s young son goes missing.  There are no leads and the mystery goes unsolved.

Fast forward seventy years to Sadie Sparrow, a detective who finds herself on the outs with the career she loves because of her blurring of the lines in a case and getting too close to the mother of a victim in one of her cases.  Sadie is feeling out of sorts while dealing with a suspension from the force and escapes to her family in Cornwall.  While there, Sadie discovers the Edevane estate and learns about the haunting disappearance of the young boy.  Not having her job to go to and a crime to solve, Sadie locks onto this mystery.

Through reaching out to an older sister of the missing boy and the original detective on the case, Sadie begins to unravel family secrets that have been buried or denied for decades to help bring closure to his family.  She finds relationships between the Edevane case and the case that lead to her suspension in a way that completes the novel.

Kate Morton combines a mysterious event with classic story telling to draw the reader into the Edevane home.  The characters are complex and haunting and leave you searching for more answers with every chapter.  I would give this a solid 5 out of 5 stars.  I greatly enjoyed the story and felt drawn into the mystery.  I thought I had a good theory but that was turned on its head and a different story unfolded than I was expecting.  When I give a book 5 stars it must be a book I would be willing to read again, and I think I could read The Lake House again and find small hints throughout that I missed the first time.  Morton is a joy to read and I encourage all who enjoy mysteries and classic novels to give her a chance.

 

Mirah with Kate Morton at her book event promoting The Lake House

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Silent Speaker

February 26th, 2018

The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In this 1946 Nero Wolfe mystery, the head of the federal Bureau of Price Regulation has been beaten to death with a monkey wrench in the green room just before he is to give a speech to his adversaries, the National Industrial Association. Since the manufacturers disliked having their prices regulated, due to wartime contingencies, there are scores of suspects in the murder.

…the public, the people, had immediately brought the case to trial as usual, without even waiting for an arrest, and instead of the customary prolonged disagreement and dissension regarding various suspects, they reached an immediate verdict. Almost unanimously they convicted – this was the peculiar fact – not an individual, but an organization. The verdict was that the National Industrial Association had murdered Cheney Boone.

With public opinion inflamed against the captains of industry, the PR-conscious association hires PI Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, his sidekick, to find the killer. In an unusual twist, Wolfe does at the beginning of the case what he usually does at the end: he gathers all the suspects to his office in his famous brownstone which he rarely leaves. Wolfe’s mildly anti-business, pro-individualism stance makes him objective. Archie suspects business, but Wolfe also considers the victim’s co-workers as potential culprits. The first third of the book feels a little long. The gears were grinding, perhaps because this was the first full-length Wolfe mystery written in six years, as Stout had been doing war work.

There is a second killing, not to mention the vanishing of the bureaucrat’s last Dictaphone roll. In the last third or so, too much time is given to the search for the disappeared roll. However, for Stout and his fans like us, the puzzle is not really the thing, but characters and setting are. The interplay between Wolfe and Archie, as narrated by Archie, is as delightful as ever. They trust each other, but they are very different people.

What Wolfe tells me, and what he doesn’t tell me, never depends, as far as I can make out, on the relevant circumstances. It depends on what he had to eat at the last meal, what he is going to have to eat at the next meal, the kind of shirt and tie I am wearing, how well my shoes are shined, and so forth. He does not like purple.

The writing and plotting may make for what at times feels like a slow read, but this is still a satisfying addition to the series and would be enjoyed by any confirmed fan. Novices, not so much

 

 

 

 

Spy Thriller Review – The Great Impersonation

February 21st, 2018

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In the 1970s and 1980s Dover Publications re-issued many forgotten classics in the supernatural and mystery genre, such as The Great Impersonation by prolific but now neglected E. Phillip Oppenheim. Readers who like Agatha Christie will get a charge out this old-timey spy thriller set on the eve of, but in fact written right after, WWI.

Scenes of cocktail bashes, shooting parties, and weekends in country houses warm us readers up with a familiarity we’ve gotten from Downton Abbey.

The characters are well-drawn: members of the English landowning class, German and Hungarian royalty, and their hired help. Particularly vivid were the German spymaster and a Hungarian princess, described, in terms not exactly kosher today, as “an impulsive, a passionate, a distinctly primitive woman, with a good deal of the wild animal in her still.”

The quaint prose generally balances the old-fashioned marker that characters rarely “say” anything but “agree,” “remark,” “declare,” “reply,” “protest,” “admit,” “pronounce,” “complain,” and on and on until the reader shakes her head in bafflement that English has so many verbs for “to express orally in words.”

The unfolding of the plot is steady, simple, and full of plausible surprises even if the premise (pulling off an impersonation) is inevitably far-fetched. What keeps both the writer on his toes and readers in suspense is that so many other characters are doubtful of the impersonator and say so aloud.

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Lucky Legs

January 29th, 2018

The Case of the Lucky Legs by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the third of 75 mysteries starring ace lawyer Perry Mason. Published in 1936, its settings appeal to a reader nostalgic for times when her ancestors were young: cigar stores, resident hotels, soda fountains, speakeasies, and full-serve gasoline stations. The period language teaches us how to speak noir: “look common” and “know your onions.”

This is an early Mason story so various elements jar us readers used to the lode Gardner mined, say, after WWII. Della Street has not found her usual role as confidante and enabler of illegal entry and evidence funny business. In this one, poor Della is not even taking notes while Mason grills a prospective client. Perry and PI Paul Drake’s relationship is convincingly stiff as neither knows the other enough to trust him. Mason as housebreaker has a set of skeleton keys he uses without compunction. Mason as tough guy threatens to punch people. Generally speaking the prose is mechanical, even plodding at the three-quarters mark, making me wonder, “Cripes, another interrogation! Again.”

And the smoking! Two scenes emphasize the power of watching smoke rise to assist deep thinking, which we ex-smokers will remember with rueful disgust at undeniable pleasure. David Sedaris mentions in When You are Engulfed in Flames that publishers have asked him if they could cut out references to smoking in a story they wanted to reprint. If publishers plan on doing that to Perry Mason, huge blacked out redactions will appear in these texts.

On the upside the characterization, such as it is, strikes me as better than usual because all four principles plus the two tough cops are plausible, with one of them being wily and worthy antagonist to Mason. Also, on the upside, as far as I, who’s read dozens of Mason novels, am concerned, it includes no courtroom scene.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Ashes to Ashes

January 22nd, 2018

Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Emma Lathen was the pseudonym for the writing team of Mary J. Latsis and Martha Henissart. From the early Sixties to the Nineties, their series hero was Wall Street banker and amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher. The magazine Newsweek described Lathen as “a master plotter, an elegant stylist, a comic genius and a purist who never sacrifices logic for surprise effect.”

In this mystery Ungar Realty, a large developer, is planning to acquire St. Bernadette’s School, a beloved Catholic school in a Queens-like neighborhood of the Big Apple. The deal between the company and archdiocese looks done until the newly formed Parents League protests the closing of the school and files a lawsuit. Then the leader of the activists is found murdered in the group’s headquarters. John Putnam Thatcher, whose bank is financing the deal, is drawn into a complex web of parish intrigue and protest as he tries to identify the perp.

The murder, of course, generates much publicity. The publicity attracts the types that Lathen, both of whom were probably old-style New York Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, likes to skewer. For instance, horning in on the Parents League protests are liberal Catholics who alienate the working class locals by advocating for the Pill to be distributed to teenaged girls. Also showing up are the Bhagavad Catholics who mix in Hare Krishna with Christianity. There are two action-filled scenes, one a genuine riot and another more peaceful protest at the UN, which brings together Jewish, Arabic, and Catholic folks in mutual support against absentee landlords.

With the Sixties-type activism and the mixed reaction to Vatican II, this 1971 book feels nostalgic for those of us readers born in the Forties and Fifties. But then again it also feels very here and now in light of headlines in my newspaper that say “Ten Catholic elementary schools in —– Diocese are closing, displacing 1,154 students (K-8) and 195 faculty and staff.”