Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Her Mother's Daughter - Julianne Lee

Her Mother’s Daughter
A Novel of Queen Mary Tudor
Julianne Lee

Historical Fiction

Most people think of Mary Tudor as a bloodthirsty, intolerantly Catholic woman who killed off her enemies then went mad. As usual, there’s so much more to the story. This novel begins with Mary at age 6, when she was the “pearl” of her father’s world. Being the pearl of King Henry VIII’s world should have been a happy and secure place. But, given the politics of the time, it was far from that. When Henry divorced Mary’s mother, Queen Catherine, he started a cascade of events that nearly overwhelmed England and everyone in it.

This novel does a very good job of telling the story of Mary’s life, from age 6 until her death, by using the viewpoints of various nobles and commoners. To add to the mix, there are paragraphs from Mary’s first-person viewpoint scattered throughout. They read almost like diary entries and illuminate her relationships and feelings towards her father, Lady Jane, Anne Boleyn, and many others. It makes the book feel a bit more personal and allows Mary stand out a bit among the overarching themes of political infighting and religious battles.

In the end, Mary emerges as a very sympathetic person. She’s a woman born into a time when noble women were married off to form alliances, with no thought to their wishes. She was raised by Catherine, a devout Catholic, and grew up in a time of religious persecution. She, like her mother, desperately wishes to be a wife and mother, but events conspire against her until quite late. The only drawback to this novel is the questionable framing device that consists of a group of current-era girls at a slumber party, playing “Bloody Mary.” While this serves to show how Mary Tudor is remembered today, it’s jarring and, to me, an odd choice. I think the book would have been just as good without it. As it is, it is an historical novel written with an easy flow that places the reader beside some of the greatest figures of history, and tells the story of the first Queen of England.

Rating: 8
December 2009
ISBN# 978-0-425-23008-4 (trade paperback)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Starbound - Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman

Science Fiction

This novel picks up around nine years after the events of MARSBOUND. For readers who missed that fine novel, there’s a wonderful and concise review of ‘what happened’ in the second chapter, appropriately titled ‘History Lesson.’ So new readers will instantly be brought up to speed. Carmen Dula, dubbed “The Mars Girl” since making first, albeit accidental, contact with the inhabitants of Mars, is now married to Paul Collins, known as the hero space pilot.

The story takes place in 2088, now an almost-foreseeable future. The technology is clearly far beyond our current abilities, but people never change. There are still politicians and spies and anarchists and those who simply want to live their lives in peace. These books are truly character-driven, despite the high-tech surroundings. Everything that happens, happens because of a human decision.

After meeting the “Martians,” humanity also met the Others, the race that engineered and placed beings on Mars to monitor Earth and its progress into space. After rigging an explosion that could have wiped out life on Earth, the Others took off for the stars at unheard-of speeds. Earth immediately started a build-up of warships in order to protect the populace. At the same time, they built a long-range ship designed for following the Other with a message of peace. Or, as the characters on board put it, “please don’t kill us until we get a chance to talk to you.” Naturally, there are all kinds of political ramifications to such a huge undertaking, and even when threatened the peoples of Earth find it more than difficult to come to a consensus.

Carmen and Paul are obvious choices for the mission. Joining them will be two xenobiologists, three “spy” types, and two of the inhabitants of Mars. The story is narrated in turn by Carmen, Namir (one of the spy types) and one of the Martians, who clearly has a very different perspective of the trip and of the human interactions he observes. Most of the story takes place during the journey and, except for the presence of Martians, could very well mirror every long sea crossing of the 17th century: a group of people thrown together in a relatively small space from which there is no escape until they reach their destination. Or die in one of a million ways during the journey. Absolutely no knowledge of science or technology is required to enjoy either of these fine novels. Just an appreciation for the human condition and all its foibles.

Rating: 9
January 2010
ISBN# 978-0-441-01817-8 (hardcover)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Black Tie Affair - Sherill Bodine

A Black Tie Affair
Sherrill Bodine
Grand Central/Forever

Contemporary Romance

The author of TALK OF THE TOWN returns with a sort of spin-off novel, starring the Smith sisters, improbably named Athena, Venus, and Diana. I think Venus got the short end of the name stick. That’s a lot to live up to, really. The Smith sisters of Chicago are wealthy and very fashionable. This is Athena’s story, though it’s clear that the other two will get their turns shortly. In the meantime, they’re opening a jewel-box boutique store filled with vintage couture and accessories called Pandora’s Box.

Athena works at the Chicago Institute of Fashion, where she’s currently working on an exhibit concerning the First Families of historic Chicago. Proceeds from the exhibit will go to fund a scholarship for her young intern, Makayla. No, I don’t know why the wealthy Athena doesn’t simply fund it herself. That’s not the point. The point is that, once upon a time, Bertha Palmer used her wealth and social position to help those who needed it and champion women’s rights in a time when that was not at all fashionable. Rumor has it that the Clayworth family’s collection contains four of her gowns in pristine condition. Athena knows that displaying these gowns would be a huge draw for the exhibit.

The Clayworths are another of Chicago’s First Families. They founded and still run the top-flight department store in the city. Drew Clayworth and Athena have a history, dating back some fifteen years. He was 19 and she was 17 and a betrayal has kept them apart all these years. More in the present, the Clayworths fired Athena’s father, a lifelong employee, on suspicion of embezzlement. Athena believes in her dad’s innocence and this development simply proves that the Clayworths are heartless and cold. But she definitely needs to work her connections to get to those Bertha Palmer gowns.

When she does, things go horribly wrong. Some substance in or on the gowns poisons her. This substance gives everyone who touches or breathes it a euphoric feeling, followed by a need to tell the truth. Not good, but temporary. Unfortunately, before the gowns can be tested, they’re stolen from the storage facility. Now there are unsuspecting people out there, getting dosed with whatever is on the gowns. Naturally, the Clayworth lawyers are in a tizzy over possible lawsuits. But Athena is worried about the gowns being damaged. She and Drew realize that, for their mutual benefit, they need to work together despite their past.

It shouldn’t be a spoiler to tell you that the substance allows Athena to admit to herself that she still has feelings for Drew, even after all these years. Drew clearly feels the same way, although he’s got the same problems with stubbornness and pride that Athena does. The source of the betrayal honestly doesn’t seem like something that would keep two intelligent adult people apart for years, but my disbelief was suspended by that time, caught up in the search for the gowns. The pace is very fast, the dialogue snappy, and we’re even treated to a cameo appearance by Rebecca from TALK OF THE TOWN. The story of Drew and Athena is wrapped up here, but there are plenty of loose ends (including the situation with her father) that signal more to come. If you’re looking for fast, fun reads, this author will not disappoint.

Rating: 7 ½
January 2010
ISBN# 978-0-446-61839-5 (paperback)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock's Shower - Robert Graysmith

The Girl In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower
Robert Graysmith


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock released “Psycho,” a movie that remains iconic. The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the shower scene. In that scene, Mother Bates famously stabs Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) to the strains of shrieking violins. It may be the most famous piece of film in cinematic history. What’s so shocking about the scene in hindsight is not that it’s full of gore or nudity, but that it really isn’t. It’s just cut in a way to make the audience feel that they’ve seen a lot more than they really have.

Most moviegoers would say that Janet Leigh is “The Girl in the Shower,” but the truth is that, unless you can see her face, you’re looking at her body double, a little-known nudist, actress, and model known as Marli Renfro. Apparently, Hitchcock, Leigh, and their pr team tried repeatedly to deny the use of a body double until that position became untenable. The body double is, of course, uncredited in the film and was paid roughly $500 for her pivotal role in movie history. In 2001, it was widely reported that a serial killer who modeled himself after Norman Bates had killed the shower scene stand-in in a way that mimicked the film.

As it turns out, that’s true. But the stand-in and the body double were two different women. Author Robert Graysmith was first taken with the image of Marli Renfro when she appeared on the cover of Playboy in 1960. (This image is available online, and, by today’s standards, pretty darn tame.) That image stayed with him for years, until he heard about the above-described murder. He realized there was a difference between a stand-in and a body double, and decided to find out what happened to Marli Renfro.

This book has all the makings of a great noir classic. Somehow, though, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The most interesting sections deal with the actual filming of the shower scene in “Psycho,” and the contemporaneous presence of Sonny, a man who killed several older women who were apparently some sort of stand-ins for his own Mother. These two stories, while playing out at the same time in Los Angeles, never actually intersect, except for the Mother/Son angle. The majority of the book deals with Marli’s year after “Psycho,” including modeling and a brief stint in a mercifully-failed movie genre known as “nudie-cuties.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “nudie-cutie” is that it gave Francis Ford Coppola his first directing credit.

All of these disparate threads are fascinating, both as true crime, as film history, and as cultural history. It’s clear the author was present in the times and researched his topics thoroughly. He manages to convey a real sense of what it was like in America in the 1960s, both in the entertainment industries of Los Angeles and Las Vegas and in more average walks of life. The seemingly random leaps from one topic to another take some getting used to, and, in the end, left me feeling a bit short-changed. Perhaps the jumps in the narrative were meant to echo the jump cuts used in the shower scene. Unfortunately, jump cuts that allow a viewer’s imagination to fill in information in a film are far less effective in a book. In the end, we learn a lot more about the entertainment industry in the 1960s than we do about Marli Renfro, but I have the distinct impression that she likes it that way.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23231-6 (hardcover)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ghost Sudoku - Kaye Morgan

Ghost Sudoku
A Sudoku Mystery
Kaye Morgan
Berkley Prime Crime


When you come home from a vacation, you should feel rested and ready to tackle your normal life again. When Liza Kelly arrives home, she finds that she’s inexplicably running for office. So much for de-stressing. Someone has put Liza’s name up for mayor. She’d much rather concentrate on her syndicated sudoku column and run her PR firm.

At the board of elections office, she finds an old high school classmate, Chad Redbourne. Chad is very evasive about exactly who put Liza’s name in the ring and why. And he seems strangely unnerved by her appearance. Liza suspects a political dirty trick and decides to visit Chad at home to discuss it. She arrives to find Chad hanging, dead. Even more creepy, there’s someone skulking around who claims to be Liza’s political consultant. But he doesn’t even recognize her. It’s pretty clear that the political machine is set to grind up Liza unless she acts fast.

The inclusion of small town politics gives this installment (DEATH BY SUDOKU, MURDER BY NUMBERS, SINISTER SUDOKU, KILLER SUDOKU) a bit of a different flavor, and that’s a good thing. It must be difficult to keep a series fresh and interesting, and this author does it very well. For the puzzle-solving reader, Liza introduces the idea of sudoku puzzles using symbols instead of numbers, and delves into the idea of coding information into a puzzle.

It turns out that Chad designed a slew of sudoku puzzles in his spare time. Liza, appropriately, takes that to mean he couldn’t have been all bad, despite being part of the machine of politics. Her involvement in the investigation makes perfect sense, since she may be the next victim. These are fast, fun reads with enough intrigue to satisfy any mystery reader, and the added bonus of included puzzles. If you’re not up on your sudoku-solving skills, there are tips and clues to help you get started. If you’re already a puzzle person, you’ll enjoy the puzzles (and solutions) included here.

Rating: 7
January 2010
ISBN# 978-0-425-23262-0 (paperback)

Monday, February 08, 2010

Deadtown - Nancy Holzner

Nancy Holzner

Urban Fantasy

Lots of parents like to think they’ve got their kid’s life mapped out at birth. For Victory (Vicky) Vaughn, that’s pretty much true. Long before she was born, her father, a Cerdorion – Welsh shape-shifter – received a visit in a dream from Saint Michael and Saint David, in which he learned that he would have a daughter, she would fight demons, and she would be named Victory. Unfortunately, when it came time to name their newborn, mom was woozy on painkillers and dad filled out the paperwork. So, Victory she is.

Like all Paranormals, Vicky – a demon-slaying shape shifter - lives in Deadtown. That’s not a choice; that’s a law. Ever since a mysterious plague hit Boston and created a large zombie population, the norms have been much happier with all the ‘scary stuff’ contained in one part of the city, surrounded by a sort of DMZ. Of course there are those fighting for the rights of Paranormal Americans (PA,) most definitely including Kane, a handsome attorney who works tirelessly to bring the issue before lawmakers and just happens to be a werewolf. And Vicky’s sometime-boyfriend.

The night’s job seemed fairly routine: get rid of a Drude, a demon haunting her client’s dreams. Once the demon is dispatched, something strange blows through the room. No one notices but Vicky. Later events reveal that a Hellion – a demon who causes and feeds on destruction – is somehow loose in the city. Vicky and this Hellion have a personal history. At their last meeting, it marked her, and she’s not quite sure what that means for her.

This is the first novel in a new urban fantasy series, so a bit of time is devoted to introducing the characters and their various histories. This time around, the author chooses to toss readers right into the middle of one of Vicky’s jobs. It’s and exciting and original sequence and sets the stage for the rest of the novel. We meet Vicky, and Tina, the eternal zombie teenager. The way it’s written makes the reader eager to uncover both past and future events. It’s an original take on zombies, both with regard to their creation and their future prospects.

Vampires and werewolves are present, but are handled in a unique way. It makes complete sense in our current society that a large population of paranormals would be lobbying for equal rights, and, sadly, it makes the same amount of sense that there would be those who oppose that. The author does a great job of balancing personal lives and broader issues; action sequences and necessary history; what affects one character and what affects everyone. Vicky is a great new character and I hope we see a lot more of her.

Rating: 8
January 2009
ISBN# 978-0-441-01813-0 (paperback)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Sleeping With Anemones - Kate Collins

Sleeping With Anemone
A Flower Shop Mystery
Kate Collins


Keeping a small town economically viable is a balancing act. On the one hand, you need new businesses to set up shop, provide jobs, and pump new money into the local economy. On the other hand, if that new business is very big or corrupt in some way, you’re just asking for trouble. Understandably, opinions are split about Uniworld Food Corporation setting up a huge dairy farm outside of town. It’ll mean a lot of jobs for a lot of people. But, according to others, they inject their cows with growth hormones, affecting the milk and beef.

Abby Knight runs Bloomers, the local flower shop. But she’s decided to take on the fight against this corporation. At a Home and Garden Show, she uses her booth to collect signatures on a petition to keep Uniworld Food Corporation out of town. Free speech and all. Unfortunately for Abby, Uniworld owns the hall in which the show is held. Eventually, they ask her, with varying degrees of politeness, to leave.

After that, Abby is more determined than ever to stop the corporation. But, clearly, there are people working against her. It begins with your average “cease and desist” letters. Which she ignores. Then someone shoves a threatening letter under her shop door. A brick wrapped in burning paper comes sailing through a window. All of this makes Abby angry and ready to keep up the fight. Then, her teenaged niece, Tara, is taken. Possibly due to another case of mistaken identity; possibly for more nefarious reasons. The authorities wonder if perhaps, given Abby’s penchant for getting involved in murder cases, that the kidnapper might have nothing to do with the dairy farm and everything to do with revenge. Either way, Abby won’t let anything happen to her beloved niece.

The author really excels at creating situations that are new and interesting, yet still believable. That’s got to be difficult in a series set in a small town, but she makes it seem effortless. Bringing in a huge conglomerate to a small town is a fairly familiar situation for many people, so readers will be able to relate to the characters’ many and varied reactions. Abby’s reasons for getting involved come about naturally and never seem shoehorned in just for effect. Giving the story a Big Bad Corporation adds to the air of menace and provides a great backdrop.

Longtime readers of the series (EVIL IN CARNATIONS, SHOOTS TO KILL, A ROSE FROM THE DEAD, ACTS OF VIOLETS) will be pleased to see that characters continue to evolve. Abby and her boyfriend Marco have some serious decisions to make while dealing with some rather strong urgings from both families, for example. New readers will have no problems jumping in at this point in the proceedings, since the author manages to weave in pertinent history without interrupting the current plot. SLEEPING WITH ANEMONES may be the best installment of this series yet.

Rating: 7 ½
February 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-22890-1 (paperback)