Thursday, July 2, 2015

Second Street Station: A Mary Handley Mystery (A Mary Handley Mystery #1) by Lawrence H. Levy

Second Street Station: A Mary Handley MysteryI had an absolutely good time reading this historical mystery with the most intriguing cast of characters--from Thomas Edison to J.P. Putnam to Tesla (Yes, Tesla was responsible for AC electricity. We're not talking about the car.)

But in the middle of the drama--Who invented what? Who's stealing what? Who is Bowler Hat going to kill next? And heck, even the invention of the electric chair--and the interesting characters, the heroine of the story steals the show. Mary.

Mary's mother is ashamed of her. Mary is unconventional. She doesn't want to get married and have babies. She can't even make French toast. And she curses sometimes. She wants to be a detective. She runs through the streets after bad guys, tearing at her corset so she can breathe. She's scandalous!

And I loved her. She stands up for herself and others, does the right thing, and has a sense of humor, or at least the narrative does. The narrative is different, in a good way. It head hops skillfully between characters, is in third person, and is not jarring. It's very well done.

The mystery is simple: a man is dead. Who killed him? Only the people, inventions, a journal...all makes it more complicated than it needs to be, which also keeps the reader guessing. Not an easy solve, this one.

On top of that, Mary is the first woman working with/on the police force. She must deal with all kinds of discrimination.

There's a romance that seemed out of place and I question why it was there. It fell flat in light of circumstances I can't reveal without spoiling things. I'd rather it not have been there at all. But the addition of real-life people, the inventions and the stories surrounding them...really made this go from cool book to awesome book. I'll be reading more of Mary's adventures. She has a lot of them! From attacks in alleys to martial arts to hijacking trolleys...

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes

I'm not embarrassed to admit that I liked Ninth Ward which was Jewell Parker Rhodes' Hurricane Katrina novel written for children.  I recently discovered that she had written another children's novel called Bayou Magic which deals with important themes.  It also has a beautiful cover.


Maddy was a ten year old from New Orleans who went to spend the summer with her grandmother at Bon Temps Bayou.  Her grandmother was an herbalist. She also carried the history of her maternal line going back to the ancestress who came from Africa accompanied by the spirit that she worshiped.  This spirit is known as Mami Wata.

I had heard of Mami Wata but knew very little about her.  I was under the impression that she had originated in  Benin like the spirits known as the Loa.  The Loa are the spirits of Voodoo.  Jewell Parker Rhodes had been writing about Voodoo in a series of novels for adults.   Yet Mami Wata wasn't originally part of the Voodoo pantheon.   Her origin is definitely West African, but I don't see any evidence that she came from any particular place.  One theory is that she actually began as The African Manatee who is apparently called Maame Water.  I think there's a chicken and egg problem there.  The African manatee could have been named after the spirit who was already being worshiped in ancient West Africa.

I got to know Mami Wata a bit better through the eyes of Maddy in Bayou Magic.  Maddy was the first in several generations of her family to see and speak to Mami Wata.  At first Maddy thinks it's "only a dream", but dreams are important in African traditions.  It's one of the ways that spirits can communicate with human beings.

Although Maddy's grandmother never saw Mami Wata herself, I was impressed with her wisdom.  When Maddy told her that she wanted to be a hero, her response was "To be a hero, bad things have to happen."  Maddy's grandmother also sensed that bad things were indeed about to happen and that Bayou Bon Temps was in jeopardy.  The approaching disaster turned about to be very real, and a massive disruption of the environment of the entire region.    How could a ten year old have any impact on such a cataclysm?  Maybe she could with the help of magic, and a certain West African water spirit.

So  age old religion collides with contemporary environmental concerns, and a little girl does have a chance to be a hero.  I loved it.   I'll definitely need to catch up on Jewell Parker Rhodes novels that I've missed.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bad Ex Karma by Donna Cummings - humorous story

Over the weekend I read my first Donna Cummings book, Bad Ex Karma. I was engrossed with this book from page one. I really liked the authors writing style. It reminded me of several NYT authors I've read, such as Janet Evanovich.

The story starts with Delia in bed after bad sex with her 5 year boyfriend. When evening comes, she's expecting a proposal since it's their anniversary, instead she gets dumped. It's then the cycle starts. Any man who shows interest in her, winds up in the ER. However, when she meets Mr. Cilantro aka Jonathan, he seems to be immune to her curse.

This is a light-hearted story full of comical scenes between Delia and her friends as they play matchmaker. This is a romance and it's a clean one. Not sweaty scenes in this story, which was fine. Not all stories need to go into great detail in that department.

This won't be my last Donna Cummings book.

My Rating:

About The Book

The dating gods must be crazy.

I'd thought my five-year anniversary would include a fancy dinner, some great sex, and maybe fending off a marriage proposal. Instead, it was the worst sex ever, and at the restaurant, my boyfriend broke up with me.

It's like I've been cursed with Bad Ex Karma. Whenever I try to date a new guy, he ends up with a concussion or a trip to the ER.

My internal "disaster consultants", the What Ifs, completely missed the clues leading to the breakup, so now they're working overtime to protect me from another potential heartbreak. My two best friends set me up on dates while assuring me it won't put men on the endangered species list.

There's one man who seems completely immune to the curse: a sexy chef named Jonathan. He keeps popping up in my life, and he stirs up the most delicious feelings. Maybe Bad Ex Karma isn't such a bad thing after all. . .

Monday, June 29, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven: Bitter Irony in a Novel of Ethiopia

I really liked Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.  Black Dove, White Raven seemed like it would be unusual because Wein's young pilots grew into maturity in Ethiopia.  It was unusual all right.  It nearly ripped my heart out.


 Rhoda Menotti and Delia DuprĂ© were stunt pilots who performed together in the U.S. in the 1930's.  They had to perform for white only audiences because the venues were all segregated.   African-American Delia became involved with an Ethiopian pilot in Paris and gave birth to a son. She wanted her son to be raised in an environment where he wouldn't be considered inferior because of his race, and intended to take him to Ethiopia. Rhoda was offended by their segregated shows, but Delia insisted that they had to take any money they could get.  She wanted to earn enough to live in Ethiopia, so that her son could be free of American racism.

When Delia died in a tragic accident, Rhoda honored her friend's intentions for her son.  She went to live in Ethiopia with Delia's son, Teo and her own daughter, Emilia.  I admired and respected Rhoda for her loyalty to Delia's memory, and for treating Teo as part of her family.  Rhoda was a credit to her Quaker background. She used her piloting skills to help people in Ethiopia.   

 Ethiopia in the 1930's was no utopia.   There was a nightmare at the heart of Ethiopian society from which it had yet to awaken.  Teo was caught up in that nightmare.   He was trained to be a pilot and became quite accomplished.   When he was sixteen his life took a terrible turn that Delia would never have anticipated.  I wept for Teo. His mother wouldn't have even considered bringing Teo to Ethiopia  if it had occurred to her that such a thing could happen to him.

Rhoda's daughter Emilia also learned to fly as a teenager, but the drama of this book centered on Teo.  Emilia was better at navigation than at flying.  She didn't actually enjoy flying which I found disappointing.  Yet she was intelligent, resourceful and immensely loyal to Teo.

I was captured by the originality and intensity of Black Dove, White Raven  until Rhoda's husband, an Italian military pilot, did something that I considered unbelievable.  It was against military regulations and wasn't consistent with the love and concern with which he had previously treated his daughter, Emilia.  So it was both implausible and reprehensible.  The spell that Elizabeth Wein had woven was broken for me at that point.

For most of this book, I thought it was the best novel that I'd read in the first half of 2015, but the out of character behavior of Orsino Menotti, Rhoda's husband, was significant.  So I felt that I had to deduct one bike from my rating.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Midnight Supper at the Rise and Shine by Tara Woolpy

Midight Supper at the Rise and Shine follows a family who owns a diner and we learn about the daily life of this complex family. This was my first book by the author. I really enjoyed her writing style and would read a book of hers again.

The story itself was good. I enjoyed learning about the different people in Irene's life. Many of the family interactions were comical and very much realistic when it comes to a family that is always together.

As far as the main character of the story (this is a first person story), I really wan't crazy about Irene. I had a hard time relating to her and many of the times the thoughts she had or things she said, I just felt were shallow.

Aside from not really liking the Irene (the main character), as I stated, I did enjoy the rest of the characters and would be interested in their stories in the future.

My Rating:

About the Book

Bad luck and worse choices—that’s Irene. She’s been a widow half her life and now splits her time between waitressing at the Rise and Shine cafĂ© and singing in an oldies cover band. And she’s having an affair with a married man—something that even her eclectic, super liberal family can’t condone.

She’d be the first one to admit she has faults, but she’s not a bigot. The genetic pool in her nuclear family spans the globe. And it’s not that she’s prejudiced against people with disabilities but that doctors and wheelchairs give her the heebie-jeebies. So when a cute guy in a chair keeps showing up in the restaurant, she’s clumsy, awkward and strangely drawn. Can Irene let go of the past or is she too emotionally broken to find a future worth the risk?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Angel Court Affair by Anne Perry

I haven't read many of Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries.  In fact, I've only read two since I joined Goodreads in 2008.   The Victorian period isn't my favorite.  Victorian ideas about respectability and class snobbery tend to annoy me.  Yet the first wave of modern feminism began during this period.  So I keep my eye out for Victorian titles that involve women speaking up for themselves.

 The Angel Court Affair attracted my attention because it deals with the disappearance of a woman preacher who was considered blasphemous. Since religion interests me,  I wanted to find out what she believed and why people thought it was blasphemy.


Sofia Delacruz, the character who caused so much controversy, was an Englishwoman who escaped an arranged marriage and re-emerged in Spain as a religious leader with a small following.  Based on my research into the history of Christianity, it seemed to me that what she preached had some similarities to the Christian ideal of Imitatio Christi or Imitation of Christ.  In the medieval period this was known as the path of the saints because it was too demanding for ordinary people.  Sofia Delacruz firmly believed that everyone could follow that path.  Her most controversial statement was that God was once like us.  To me, this seemed to refer to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.  Jesus became flesh and lived a human life.  The Christian Gospels depict this human lifetime.  So I didn't find this particularly controversial myself, but perhaps Victorians didn't like to think of the implications of Christianity.  Proposing that God was once human, or that humans could become like God disrupted the rigid hierarchies that pervaded Victorian culture.  There were hierarchies of age, gender,class and race.  People weren't allowed to "get above themselves" and it was downright subversive to encourage people to dream of becoming more than they were.

The political world was also described as in a state of ferment in this novel.  The United States had recently declared war on Spain. The British authorities feared anarchism and foreign invasion.   Interestingly enough, there was a reference to an  alternate history short story first published in 1871  in which Germany conquered England called The Battle of Dorking  by George Chesney.  You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg Australia here .

 Yet what about the mystery?  The mystery case itself seemed rather familiar and even predictable.  This is part of the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, and I hoped that Charlotte would play a more active role.  Charlotte and the Pitts' teenage daughter, Jemima, did express their views about Sofia Delacruz. There is also a mention of Charlotte's secret participation in the women's suffrage movement which I appreciated, but most of the investigation was performed by men. 

I also noticed the double standard about extra-marital affairs which were routine for men, but scandalous for women.  The reputation of a woman could be destroyed by such an affair, but there were no repercussions for men.  This double standard continues  in contemporary society,  so it shouldn't be news to readers.  Yet I still found it infuriating. 

The Angel Court Affair isn't recommended for those readers who feel a sentimental nostalgia for Victorianism.  This is a sharply observed realistic view of Victorian society.  Anne Perry depicts it as a culture poised on the brink of change.  


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tidewater: Can There Be An Authentic Pocahontas Novel?

I am one of the many people who loves and cherishes the mythical Pocahontas.  In fact, I played Pocahontas in a Thanksgiving play in elementary school.  This was long before she became the subject of a Disney movie, by the way.  Disney didn't invent the legendary Pocahontas.  Disney didn't even popularize the story.  Pocahontas became a popular legend during her own lifetime.  She achieved celebrity status and was the darling of London society when she was barely out of her adolescence.

 It was Paula Gunn Allen's biography, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat that caused me to re-examine the myth.  Allen was a Native American author who sought to revolutionize the way history is written. She wrote her biography in such a way that she could include speculation and imaginative re-creation of events in the manner of historical fiction.

This leads me to Tidewater by Libbie Hawker.  I think that if Hawker included a list of the roles that Pocahontas played in the title of her novel as Allen did, it would be rather different.  Perhaps her title would read Jester,Linguist,Political Adviser and Spy.  The only thing that Hawker and Allen would agree on is that Pocahontas was a spy.  It seems to me that every author who has written about Pocahontas has their own version of her.

How authentic is Hawker?  How much authenticity is possible when it comes to Pocahontas?  How much authenticity is desirable within the context of historical fiction?  These are questions that I will be tackling in this review. I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher via Net Galley.

It's important to realize that we don't have any contemporary account of Pocahontas written by her.  It would have been theoretically possible for Pocahontas to have kept a diary after John Rolfe taught her to read and write in English, but I think she was too busy living her life to write about it.  The only contemporary account that we have is the one that catapulted her to the 17th century equivalent of superstar status.  It was authored by John Smith.    Keep in mind, that this was a man who made his living by writing self-aggrandizing memoirs.   He was neither the first nor the last writer whose career centered on inventing himself.  Can we believe anything that he wrote?  In her author's note, Hawker wrote that she found Smith sympathetic and selectively credible.   Unfortunately, it's difficult to decide what is truth and what has been concocted by the author to make him look good when there is only one source available.    It comes down to individual judgment and preference.  Both of these involve subjectivity.  This is how we can have different versions of Pocahontas that are all completely valid.  We don't really know the truth about her.

I believe that when you are writing any kind of fiction you need to tell a good story about characters who the readers will consider interesting and plausible.  When you are writing fiction about a historical personage, you are constrained by what can be definitely known.  We do know the birth and death dates of Pocahontas.  If Pocahontas was a child when she first encountered John Smith, as seems to be the case,  it is not plausible that she would have fallen in love with him.  This is why Libbie Hawker didn't give us a Pocahontas who was motivated by romantic feelings toward Smith even though it certainly does make a good story.

Is Hawker's Pocahontas interesting?  She is complex, but not always sympathetic.  I included political adviser in the list of Pocahontas' roles in this book even though she made some poor recommendations.  She was too young to have mature judgment and she was trying too hard to be influential.  Ambition was her most significant flaw.  As she grew older, she came to understand that  ambition had caused her to make some serious mistakes.  Unfortunately, this didn't stop her from making more of them.  She was blinded by her desire for recognition. 

Hawker believes that Pocahontas showed John Rolfe how to grow tobacco successfully in Virginia's climate.  If she married Rolfe for the sake of her people as she claimed in this novel, then that sort of assistance was another serious error. This was a colony that was established for profit. Pocahontas apparently wasn't aware that the colony hadn't produced anything that gave the Virginia Company any return on their investment.  If  John Rolfe hadn't successfully grown a profitable strain of tobacco, it's very possible that the colony would have been terminated and the Powhatan Confederacy might have ceased to have an English problem--for that generation at least.

Hawker provided a glossary of terms in the language of  Pocahontas' people, the Powhatans.This is one of the few novels that I've encountered in which terms that are in the glossary were hyper-linked within the text in the digital version.  This makes the glossary more useful in this format.  Looking for terms in the glossary using search is much more time consuming.  I wish that hyperlinks in the text were standard for all novels that have a glossary.

I think that Tidewater is a good novel that's well-plotted with memorable characters.  Though I do wish that Paula Gunn Allen had decided to write a novel about Pocahontas instead of her non-traditional biography.  Then we would have had two compelling fictional versions of Pocahontas that contravene the myth.