Friday, September 23, 2016

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tina French (fic)

No one does Irish mysteries like Tina French.  I keep thinking she will run out of ideas, but she keeps turning them out.  If you like her work, you will like this book.  If you have been on a diet
 of non-fiction or deep meaningful books, there is nothing like a good mystery or thriller to keep you turning pages.  This book brings Frank Mackey back, and this time a body found in his old neighborhood of the Liberties, a downtrodden area of Dublin, causes him to rethink his past.  Frank is an undercover detective with the Dublin crimes unit.

French's characters speak in idiomatic Dublin slang; their voices come through clear and lilting with all the rough edges intact.  It has been 20 years since Mackey had been back to the old neighborhood, specifically Faithful Place, the cut-de-sac where he grew up with his four scrappy siblings and tough locals.  He was 19 in 1985 when he fell deeply in love with Rosie Daly, a beautiful feisty neighbor.  They made plans together to escape to England, leaving poverty and feuding families behind. Only that night, Rosie never showed up at their meeting place and Frank never saw her again. Agitated and distressed, Frank leaves his past behind, and the neighborhood where everyone lived   too close and too long together. He never did get to England; instead he bounced around Dublin a bit, joined the force, and worked his way up to being a tough but respected detective.  Along the way, he married and divorced and had a beloved daughter whom he wishes to protect from his manipulative mother and alcoholic and abusive father.

When Rosie's suitcase is found in an abandoned tenement house, Frank returns to work on the case.  I will leave it there as the mystery deepens and we meet neighbors, family, and suspects, along with old feuds which have never died.  I recommend this book to all lovers of well-written and well-plotted mystery novels.

Friday, September 16, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (fic)

Emma Cline's first novel, is a loosely veiled fictional account of the Manson Family as seen through the eyes of a naive needy 14 year old.  I have previously reviewed Jeff Guinn's excellent biography of Manson and I recommend that as reading for the real story of San Francisco in the Summer of Love.

The novel opens with the narrator, Evie Boyd, now an adult, living in a friend's isolated cabin.  When a young relative and his very young girlfriend show up and stay for several days, it forces Evie to confront not only her own past, but the naiveté of the young girl, so reflective of herself in that long ago summer. She seems to carry the burden of her past much as  Jacob Marley in the "Christmas Carol." Yet, Evie seems strangely passive and unable to help the young girl.

The reader is then taken back to the summer of 1969, leading up to the Tate/LaBianca murders in August of that year. In this novel, the Manson character is Russell Hadrick who preys on adrift young women. His fierce eyes render them helpless and he picks over them like choosing chocolates .  Evie becomes involved with the family when they rescue her one day when her bicycle has broken down.  The Girls of the title had been out on a dumpster dipping run and stopped their psychedelic bus to "help."  There was no turning back for Evie, and she began making daily trips to the ranch.  But, Evie's attraction to the ranch and it's grungy squalor had more to do with Suzanne Parker (the stand-in for Susan Atkins), who gave Evie the attention she so desperately craved.  Evie's sad clueless mother and absent father hardly figure in her life.  There is one horrifying scene when Russell pimps out Evie to an aging rock star (read /Denis Wilson of the Beach Boys) whom he is trying to get a record contract from.  We sense Evie's fear even as she needs to belong. There is another scene when the girls break into the home of a neighbor of Evie's mother.  It is a practice run for the final horrific event of the summer.  Evie is shocked at the casualness of their destruction and Suzanne senses that Evie is not able to completely buy into the depth of their evil.

The book is well written and the characters, setting and time frame are all realistic.  The sociopathic egomaniac Hadrick is especially horrifying.  The characters are all well drawn and complete.  I recommend the book for its fine writing, though the subject matter is difficult, it is presented as a study of the neediness of young girls who have been left behind and how quickly they can succumb to the crumbs of the attention they crave.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison (fic)

Katherine Harrison has written a number of books, all with interesting characters and settings.  This time she turned to the last days of the Russian Empire.  The story of the last Tsar and the end of the Romanov dynasty is familiar to us.  We know the Tsarina Alexandra became infatuated with the mad monk, Rasputin with his healing powers.  But, what I didn't know was that Rasputin was married and had three children. This is the fictional story of one of his children, loosely based on her fascinating life.

The story opens at Tsarskoe Selo, Catherine the Great's opulent winter palace (now a museum).  The royal family await their fate there. The heir to the throne, Prince Aloysha, is one of a number of decendents of Queen Victoria of England, who is afflicted with Hemophilia.  In a vain attempt to cure him, Tsarina Alexandra turns to Grigori Rasputin, a reputed healer and poor peasant from the steppes of Siberia.  Rasputin is slovenly, alcoholic, dirty, and magnetic. People of all classes are drawn to him by his intense eyes and reported sexual prowess.  Rumors abound about his influence over the Royal Family and strange relationship with the Tsarina.  As the situation becomes intolerable, a group of aristocrats get together and murder Rasputin.  This proves a difficult task; the drunken monk is poisoned with no result; they then stab him and still he struggles on; finally, in desperation they bundle him into a sack and toss him into the icy Neva.

Mourning and unconsolable, Alexandria summons Rasputin's daughters to the Palace, hoping one of them, Masha, has inherited her father's powers of healing.  Instead Masha becomes a friend and confidant to the lonely Prince.  As the restrictions intensify around the Romanovs, Masha in an effort to entertain Aloysha, begins to tell him fascinating stories which are the enchantments of the title.
The novel veers back and forth between Masha's life with her family and father, and that as witness to the final days of the Romanov family.

Harrison is an entertaining writer and her descriptions of the palaces and other prisons of the family ring authentic.  Her descriptive writing is at its best when describing the preparations and purification of the body of her father.  Masha and her father's Housekeeper/Mistress work together, wordlessly preparing the body for burial.

I wish Harrison had dwelt more on Masha's life after the murder of the Romanov's.  We know she escaped to Paris with an abusive husband, had two children, became a circus performer, eventually an American citizen, wrote a memoir and married a second time.  She had quite a life.

 The weakest part of the book for me was her relationship with Prince Aloysha and the non-development of any of the Romanov sisters.  Still, it is an entertaining read and a different take on the tragedy of the Russian Royal Family.

Monday, September 12, 2016

DICTATOR by Robert Harris (fic)

This is the final book in Harris's Ciceronian Trilogy, the others being: "Imperium" and "Lustrous." The books follow the great orator, philosopher, and Roman Consul, Marcus Tulles Cicero as he threads his way through the politics of the waning Roman Republic.  The story is narrated by his secretary, Tiro, a slave whom Cicero eventually frees.  Tiro is a natural guide to Cicero's daily life in perilous times without inserting himself into the action, except in a very minor way.

The novel opens in 58bce during one of the most contested times in the Republic.  If you have read any history of this time, it soon becomes clear that Harris has done a prodigious amount of research.  He remarkably has inserted Cicero's real words into the dialog allowing the reader to hear Cicero's voice in a easy and natural manner.  Cicero left behind thousands of letters and documents and  speeches which the real Tiro copied assiduously, along the way inventing an early form of shorthand.  It is largely thanks to the labor of medieval monks who faithfully copied and saved these precious documents that we so well know the demise of the Republic.  So it is that Cicero's words come down to us while so many others have been destroyed.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels between the politicking in the Roman Senate and what is going on in our world today.  The Romans were involved in nagging wars on several fronts, the wealth was held by a small group of aristocratic families, the poor were confined in a warren of apartments owned by slum landlords. The aging Cicero was fairly adept at the game but more than once he became enmeshed in risky moves and was banished accordingly.  The book opens on one of these exiles where he is jockeying to return to Rome as Julius Caesar is off-stage conquering Gaul and later the British Isles.  The first Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus is becoming unraveled and plots and counterplots are taking place daily making speaking out in the Senate a dangerous game.  Cicero very bravely speaks his mind over and over on the floor of the Senate when he returns from exile, only to be sent away again to govern a Provence in the eastern Mediterranean.  In order to return a second time, he promises not to involve himself in politics, but soon he is back on his game speaking out against Mark Antony after Caesar's assassination.

Cicero believed in the validity of the constitution and the Republic, nevertheless he was a catalyst in helping to bring it down.  He believed in Octavian, Caesar's nephew, when he said he would defend the Republic.  Realizing his mistake, and unable to keep his own counsel, Cicero fled again, already poor in health and close to death.  He asks: "Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens' militia, possibly hope to run and empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its framers?  Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth destroy our democratic system?"

I highly recommend this book to lovers of ancient history and to all interested in a good story.  It helps to have read the first two books, but not necessary.  This book can stand alone, as well.  It is also a good book club choice because of the comparison with modern times.