Reading: 3 Novels (and writers) to Enjoy

In this post I will be discussing Susan Elia MacNeal’s THE QUEEN’S ACCOMPLICE; Mariah Fredericks’ A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE; and Allison Pearson’s HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

Before I get to the book-talk, one of my usual pre-ambles. I promise this one will be briefer than the last, but I warn you, it is what some would consider political in nature, while, to me, it is not about politics, rather, it is about the criminals and bigots who are taking over the world.

I know it’s the thing now to bash social media, and it does most definitely deserve much bashing for the role it played in the thieving of the 2016 election and installation of the illegitimate and criminal 45 and his gop-jackbooted-cronies, those usurpers of the SCOTUS seat which ought to have gone to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland, who the treasonous lot of rot-sucking no-good goppers, in an unprecedented move, wouldn’t even bring to the floor for consideration thus taking their evil to new heights — but I digress. Yes, Facebook (which I quit five+ years ago) and Twitter are in some part responsible for the decline of civility, the epidemic of tribalism, and targeted-marketed-brainwashing, BUT . . . it is because of Twitter and the Literary crowd who hang there that I have discovered some of my favorite reads and authors. And people.

All three reads in this post are the direct result of Twitter connections, friends, and recommendations; so, even though I have cut WAY back on Twitter, I just can’t give it up and risk missing reads like these.

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 368pp, October 2016, Bantam

How do I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries? I would say “let me count the ways” but I have never been good at math and the list would reach numbers with which I am unfamiliar.

In this, the sixth of the adventures, a lunatic serial killer — or, as Maggie’s misogynistic co-investigator, Detective Chief Inspector James Durgin of Scotland Yard insists, sequential murderer — is copycatting Jack the Ripper’s brutalities, especially targeting those women who have been recruited to work as Winston Churchill’s spies, like Maggie herself.

And in 1942, as has always been the case during the horrific war, change and danger always await our heroine. Early on she is surprised by friends with the repair of what had been her grandmother’s home, damaged by blitz bombs. In no time, the same night as the surprise party in fact, Maggie’s dear friend, Chuck and her infant Griffin are moved in, having narrowly escaped being blown to bits by a gas explosion in their residence.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s half-sister, Elise Hess, is being tortured in a Nazi camp, having been captured working for the resistance. Near death, she is mysteriously released thanks to the influence of her conductor father, but there is a price to be paid if she wishes to remain free; she must denounce a patron of the resistance or be returned to the camp, and if she disappears, her fellow prisoners of whom she has grown fond will be murdered.

And, too, the mother of Elise and Maggie, the famous opera star and more infamous Nazi collaborator, Clara Hess, is, perhaps, not as dead as originally thought? And Maggie’s father is in hospital, having lost his …

I’m not giving you any more information. I want you to enjoy the layering of characters and situations, the intricate and ingenious weaving of plotlines, all expertly juggled by Susan Elia MacNeal, whose cunning disposition of storylines is also full of period detail and historical information, fascinating facts and particulars that enrich without distracting. Susan Elia MacNeal is one of those writers whose words create a film in the reader’s mind: You can see EVERYTHING she writes about so clearly, the characters are alive, the locations close enough to touch. She takes you there, into a very specific time and place, peopled by well-developed, wholly human, believable people.

Especially notable in this, number six in the series, the parallels with now. Maggie is assaulted — physically and socially/culturally/verbally — repeatedly by sexism and misogyny, there are men in power, with power, who are actively horrible, and, even worse (and still, so so so common), men who have no idea they are being horrible, who think it is their right to belittle others — women, in particular — and believe them to be less than. As horrifying as it is that seventy-five years later women are still dealing with this crap, it is absolutely terrifying that the methods and behaviors and words of the Nazis are being so closely recreated in the world now, especially here in the United States, where a wannabe oligarch/dictator has been illegally installed in an office not rightfully his, and has gone about destroying what makes this country this country, with collaborators everywhere.

So, while The Queen’s Accomplice is even better than the previous installments; unlike some series, in this one, each installment gets better rather than weaker, there is NEVER anything thrown-away/by rote in Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. In addition to which, her writing is extremely entertaining, distracting even, it is also a warning about what we ought be resisting daily so as to avoid a repeat of the goings on making it necessary for Maggie Hope to undo these mysteries, and work undercover to sabotage the bad men’s plans about which Susan Elia MacNeal so skillfully writes.

I can’t wait to read number 7, The Paris Spy, which I have, and which I am, as I did with this, delaying until the next is released, which will happen on August 7. Yes, number 8, The Prisoner In The Castle, comes out this summer. Speaking of coming out, I worry that Maggie’s gay friend, David, will be outed and treated in the horrifying way gay people were then. But, I trust Maggie will handle that and protect him, as I trust Susan Elia MacNeal with my reader’s heart.

If you have not started reading Maggie, do. Go on, get busy.

A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks, Hardcover, 288pp, April 2018, Minotaur Books

I read this because Susan Elia MacNeal blurbed the front cover calling the novel suspenseful and complex, and, as I’ve said, I trust her.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This is the first in a series of mysteries to feature the lady’s maid, Jane Prescott. It deals with the upper crust of society in New York City, 1910, and has wastrel, wild playboys, nouveau riche social climbers, anarchists, and a plethora of fascinating characters involved in a carefully plotted tale, rich in historical points, a vivid picture of a changing culture and a rip-roaring mystery. I might have figured it out before the ending, but I read a lot of mysteries. I’ll read a lot (I hope) of Jane Prescott tales, because, like Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, Jane Prescott is a character you like, with whom you’re comfortable, who is often better than her surroundings and culture allow her to be, and you want her to win. And you want more of her. Wonderful character debut.

And, last but certainly not least, a novel which is not technically a mystery but, one could call it a comic/social issue thriller. My connection to this is that it was edited by the incomparable Hope Dellon who brings us Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, and M.C.Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, to both of which I am devoted. This is a sequel (of sorts) by Allison Pearson to her earlier novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It. This one:

How Hard Can It Be, Allison Pearson, Hardcover, 352pp, June 2018, St. Martin’s Press

This is the second novel about Kate Reddy, whose aging children and out-of-a-job, self-help guru-wannabe-in-training husband necessitate a return to the workforce after an extended absence during which she raised a family and turned forty-nine, an age not much in demand — one might even say shunned — in the workforce. Kate fudges her age and her resumé and ends up being hired on a temporary basis by the very same hedge fund she set up years earlier — unbeknownst to those now in charge.

This very, very funny novel hits on so many hot-button growing older, getting through adulthood experiences: the morphing body staring at you from the mirror when yesterday you were tight and twenty; the skin which is now crepe-papery and surrendering to gravity’s pull; the kids from one side pulling at you with their growing up pains and the parents pulling at your from the other with their growing old pains and you, in the middle, with everyone else’s pain to deal with leaving you little time to take care of your own, let alone the misbehaving spouse who is a different person than the one you married, and, maybe, the new version is a not very pleasant sort.

Kate has all of that with which to deal, plus a dilapidated “new” old home in the suburbs which her husband didn’t want in the first place, and the new job where she needs to maintain her semi-false identity and navigate the office politics, which, years later, are still rife with misogyny and backstabbing and credit-grabbing, and add to this list the onset of menopause, her own body tripping her up as she struggles through a return to the workplace and the changing shape of her family and relationships. And herself.

Oh, and then her long-absent near-lover with whom she is lustfully enamored, and who returns the feeling, shows up again.

Allison Pearson has a wicked sense of humour, and a finger (or, more-like, a fist) on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, and delivers a novel both breezily easy to read and recognizably, relatably today in its heroine’s concerns and conflict between her own needs and the demands of those around her/the world, as well as that universal conflict between how we see and think of ourselves versus the box into which the world and culture wants us to fit.

Funny, and without giving anything away, a happy,triumphant resolution — so,good on you Kate. And good on Allison Pearson for giving us a heroine whose humanity includes admitting and owning her flaws and errors with a sense of humour. I wish I were more like her.

So, there it is, my second book post in as many days after a month away. And, just like I had a Twitter connection with all three of these, coming next both a Twitter (two connections there, actually) and personal connection — a fantastic new Y.A. novel, first in an exciting new series by debut novelist Melinda Beatty, Heartseeker. I started yesterday and were I not struggling with the aging, fall-asleep-in-a-chair issue myself, I’d have finished it last night.

Now, off I go. It’s father’s day and so I need to take my dear mom out to lunch and give her the “you raised us alone so you get a father’s day gift, too” card/present. It’s a gift card to Boscov’s because a person can NEVER have too many blouses and earrings. I know this because my mom told me so.

So, here I am, going.

Reading: Mysteries: Veronica Speedwell returns, and the Mitford Sisters debut

Deanna Raybourn and Jessica Fellowes have me talking briefly about their new mysteries set in the past, escapism of the most delightful variety because the NOW is a little too much, so, take me back!

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell #3), Deanna Raybourn, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, Berkley

In this, the third installment of the Veronica Speedwell series, we get more backstory on her partner in detecting, Revelstoke-Templeton Vane, aka Stoker, as the two investigate the disappearance of a man from Stoker’s difficult and storied past who did him a great wrong.

I am a huge fan of Veronica; she is one of my must-reads along with Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines. It is a comfort and a pleasure to have a new adventure with an old friend, especially when you know you can count on reliably amusing and skilled work from a talented author.

Deanna Raybourn imbues Veronica Speedwell with a wit, intelligence, spine, and lust for life that is refreshing and encouraging. I want to be her. In this episode she tangles with Egyptian artifacts, ancient curses, current secrets and scandals, and, as always, the conventions of the times against which, when she brushes up, she quickly dispenses with, making her own way in her own way, unafraid and with great style and aplomb. Too, the language and period detail so seamlessly delivered in these pages, offered in context so it is clear about what is being said, its meaning, its use, is the sign of a truly talented and thoughtful author. Deanna Raybourn manages not only to regale us with a cracking good story in a page-turning thrill ride, but she also educates and delights along the way. Much admiration for her.

Speaking of which, too, if you haven’t, you ought to follow Deanna Raybourn on Twitter [click HERE], because she is every bit as charming, witty, intelligent, and possessed of great style and aplomb as her creation, Veronica.

The Mitford Murders (Mitford Murders #1), Jessica Fellowes, Hardcover, 432pp, January 2018, Minotaur Books

Louisa Cannon, a poor, young woman from the lower-classes in 1919 England, in an effort to escape her abusive uncle, manages to land a position in the household of the Mitfords — the real Mitfords given fictional life in this, the first in a series by Jessica Fellowes.

Louisa becomes close to daughter, Nancy, who yearns to escape the nursery and become an adult, and on the way to her 18th birthday celebration and becoming a grown-up, she and Louisa become involved in a mystery to do with the death of Florence Nightingale Shore — another real person made fictional whose murder actually did go unsolved. Not here.

Through a series of adventures and misadventures, a twisty plot of missteps and mistaken (or stolen?) identities, and connections as intricate and dependent upon one another as the spokes of a well-woven spider’s web, mysteries are solved, love found and lost, redemption achieved, and villains vanquished; all of this done with style and quickly paced, a lovely distraction of despicable behavior made entertaining.

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So, there you have it, my dears: two delicious diversions from current events into which I sank myself, with much gratitude, over the past few days. I’ve been busy with family and dear friends and my own medical adventures, so I really look forward at day’s end (or in doctors’ office waiting rooms) to having an engrossing other world and time into which I can sink. If you, too, need to get away, both of these are great choices, along with my other favorite series mentioned earlier.

Okay, people await my presence. So, here I am, going.

 

Reading: 2017 Revisited

I don’t do “best” lists, because reading is so personal, thus, what follows is a revisit with some of the books that moved me, gave me some relief from the year that was, and maybe, even, some hope. Two absolute requirements for any book to land here: First, when looking over my GoodReads list, the number of stars didn’t matter so much as whether or not I remembered vividly the experience of reading the book; Second, part of that memory must be of the book having given me some comfort.

2017. A year in which my worst fears about the world, about the people with whom I share this planet, fears I have had since childhood about the bullies always winning, fears that those who play dirty and ugly will triumph over those of us who won’t or can’t behave in inhuman, immoral, disrespectful ways, fears that there are many, many people too stupid or venal or hypocritical or bigoted themselves to see through the venal, bigoted hypocrites plundering the world and mocking those many, many fools who’ve gullibly fallen for their b.s. and, too, sneering at the rest of us who are on to them but can’t seem to stop them; all of these fears interfered (interfeared?) with my ability to enjoy and focus on reading.

Still, I managed to finish reading 145 books, which is only a portion of the number I began, but this was not the year to screw with me: If I didn’t like the first 30-50 pages, I didn’t continue. I mean, hell, life is already dark enough, and the national disgrace seems determined to get us blown to nuclear smithereens, so who has time or joy enough to waste on books that don’t resonate for you?

So here, in an order as random as my rambling, discursive, babbling blog-writing, are those books I read in 2017 which I remember vividly and which brought me comfort and joy.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney

This is one of those books I know I will read again and again. It felt as if Kathleen Rooney knew me personally and was telling a story especially for me. I keep this in my room, in my stack of special books I must have near me at all times. A feeling not unlike reading Helene Hanff, with that passion for NYC. Loved. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Less, Andrew Sean Greer

Oh how I loved this book. Many reasons; great writing, happy ending, LGBTQ characters without tragedy or sturm und drang, I recognized myself in its aging (well, aging for a gay man) character, and I laughed and I cried and I felt seen and most of all, it made me think and reconsider what shape love might take and whether or not it’s still possible for someone of my advanced years and not so advanced looks, finances, or prospects. Gorgeous. Please, please read it. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Running, Cara Hoffman

Gut level writing, so new, so unlike anything else I’ve ever read, so beautiful and complicated and true and gorgeous and resonant; I was, as I said in my original write-up, gobsmacked. How often do you come across a book that is unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and yet, still extremely readable? A unique voice, a brilliant mind, and I cannot wait to hear more from this author. [Here is the link to my original review.]

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, His Majesty’s Hope, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, (Maggie Hope Mysteries #3, #4, & #5) Susan Elia MacNeal

I love Maggie Hope. What a fantastic character. What wonderful plotting. What fascinating historical detail. What wit. What emotion. What compelling pacing and structure. I have in my possession Volumes 6 and 7, but I am forcing myself to wait because what do I do when I’ve no more? EXTRA BONUS: I followed Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter, as I often follow authors whose work I admire and enjoy, and I send them thanks for their work. Most authors respond with a sincere thanks. Every so often, a conversation begins and a new reader-author bond is made, and that is magic to me, and quite the gift when an author busy with creating work to delight us all can take time to interact and chat. Susan Elia MacNeal is one such person of whom I have become fond outside the writer/reader relationship. And should I ever manage another trip to her city, we have a promised coffee (or drinks, or both) meet-up planned. [Link to my original review of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy] [Link to my original review of His Majesty’s Hope] [Link to my original review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante]

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Lee Mackenzi

This book is categorized as Young Adult, and while I get the need for categorization as far as marketing is concerned, this book is as delightful and certainly as mature (whatever that means) as many, many adult literary fiction novels — and HUGELY more fun, and despite its historical time period, far more modern of sensibility than many books nowadays. Ripping good read and I am eagerly awaiting its sequel.  [Here is the link to my original review]

I just don’t find this cover design at all appealing — from color choices to lettering to the piercing arrows.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John Boyne

This book took me by surprise. Though it had been recommended to me, it’s cover art was so uninteresting I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up. Shallow, I admit, but compelling cover design is very important; it’s when the first impression happens and if the cover is lackluster, doesn’t in any way give some flavor of what the words hold, well, then the author has been done a disservice. Truly in this case because this was a fantastic read, one of those I could not put down. [Here is link to my original review]

Unforgivable Love, Sophfronia Scott

Dangerous Liaisons re-told, set in 1940’s Harlem, composed by a writer of exquisite and extraordinary gifts. I devoured this novel like a chocolate-peanut butter pie (I just had one last night, well, half a one — no, I’m not kidding. Would that I were.) Much seduction, scheming, and sensuality, all beautifully written in short, fast-paced chapters which leave you wanting more. Page-turner, I believe is what they call it. Oh, and speaking of friendly authors who interact with readers on Twitter, Ms. Scott is another who takes time out of her busy life to do so. Great writer. Great person. Can’t wait for her next novel. [Here is link to my original review.]

 

Rules for Others to Live By; Comments and Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg

My only non-fiction work included on this list — this really wasn’t the year for any more reality than that with which one had to contend daily from news of the world and our national disgrace’s latest travesty — and it is by Richard Greenberg, Tony Award winning author of the play, Take Me Out, which I saw and for which I will be forever grateful to Mr. Greenberg; not just because the play was genius, but, too, because it afforded me the opportunity to be twenty or so feet away from the staggeringly perfect performance of Denis O’Hare and the equally staggeringly perfect and nude body of Daniel Sunjata. These are debts I cannot repay.

Daniel Sunjata in Take Me Out (I took out, so to speak, the private parts)

Speaking of which, this book was recommended to me by a dear friend, Pamela, who has given me many existential gifts and joys, too, so it is fitting she would have brought this little gem to my attention. This collection is full of beautifully sculpted lines, laughs, tears, and personal truths and journeys made and observed keenly, described with precision and an a-ha level of intelligence and insight. I recognized myself in his angst and his joy, and I highly recommend you get this gem and find yourself in its pages. You will. [Here is link to my original review]

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki, with this follow-up novel to her last, California, has become one of my pre-order/purchase authors. I know I will want her books on my shelves, in my possession, a place fewer and fewer writers warrant as I age. This timely book explores the ways in which we create ourselves in the modern world, inventing social media personae, treating life as if we were appearing in a reality show. It is both prescient and terrifying in exploring the consequences of personal delusion and deceit, and once again displays a laser-like insight into the ways in which people think, love, live, and lie, that is — in my humble reader’s opinion — Edan Lepucki’s special gift. [Here is link to my original review]

So, there are eleven books I enjoyed in the past twelve months. Here are a few more about which I either didn’t write, or wrote very little because the authors are best-sellers and so much has been written about the books already, I didn’t think I had anything to add. But, in no particular order I also enjoyed:

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay

There were also some disappointments in reading this year, mostly having to do with books so many other people loved which left me cold. Or, lukewarm at best. I am always in those situations plagued by my insecurity about my lack of intellectual heft, worrying I’m just not smart enough to get what it is everyone loves. This is often accompanied by hubris along the lines of, “Well, they’re all in the same little circle of MFA – literary fiction insiders club, and I’m brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes, or, anyway, the clothes aren’t that nice.”

But I shut up about those. I don’t write about books I don’t like, and I try, even when I am not a fan of something, to keep in mind it was made by someone with an honest, heartfelt effort, they’ve offered a piece of who they are on the page for us. I try to honor that, even when the pages don’t particularly thrill me. There is enough put-down in the world, I don’t wish to add any more.

So, I thank you for taking this ride with me. I thank those of you who read me for doing so, and those of you who read books along with me, I am grateful for you, and those of you who write and edit and publish and publicize and sell the books we read, I bless you for the gifts you bring to the world. So grateful. You do the work of angels, because I am not the only one in the world whose life has been made infinitely better by having books, loving books, living inside the world of books.

Particular special thanks to my favorite independent booksellers at The Curious Iguana,[click here and visit them — and drop in if you are anywhere nearby, ever — so worth the trip]  where Marlene has made a haven for we Frederick (and surrounding areas, and drop-in tourists, and DC weekend trekkers) readers and book lovers. As Marlene and staff are well aware, when I am low, or when I am happy, or when I am anywhere near the neighborhood, I drop in and babble and gossip and compare notes and all that sort of thing, until I remember, “Oh, this is a business and they have work to do and actual customers to wait on!” Love to you all.

And so, now, having done my year-end list, off to begin a new year of reading. And here I am, going.

Reading: “Unforgivable Love” (and a forgivable absence)

Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)

But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.

First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.

Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)

And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)

Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)

So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.

Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks

First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions,  featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.

Ryan Phillippe’s ass

Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson, in bed, being blackmailed by Ryan Phillippe in CRUEL INTENTIONS

Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!

Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.

Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.

The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.

Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.

Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.

There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.

The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.

Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.

With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.

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So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.

And now, here I am going.

 

Reading: Wrapping Up May

I read 13 books in May and have only talked about 6. So, I’m catching up with the rest of my May reads except for one, Celeste Ng’s GLORIOUS novel, “Little Fires Everywhere“, an advance reader copy of which I finally got my hands on. Since it is not being published until September and since I hate reading other people talk about books I can’t yet get, I’m going to reserve my hosannas and huzzahs about Celeste Ng’s genius and gift until closer to the book’s release date; except to say to you, PRE-ORDER THIS ONE!

Now, then, on to the books I am going to talk about, and wow, this has been a great month for reading. Let me start with a Twitter pal’s work;

His Majesty’s Hope (Maggie Hope Mystery, #3), Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 334pg, 2013, Bantam

I love Maggie Hope. I love this series. And I love knowing I’ve four more of this heroine’s adventures waiting for me. That said, each of these novels stands alone, so start where you like, but reading the first two: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy [click HERE to read what I thought about those] certainly enriches the experience of reading this installment in which Maggie continues her education and evolution as a secret agent working for Britain against the Nazi’s during World War II which has come to England with a vengeance. Dropped into Berlin to pose as a Nazi-sympathizer while delivering radio crystals to another undercover operative, Maggie sees an opportunity to gather essential information and despite the danger to herself and in defiance of protocol, she undertakes a mission of her own making, during which she meets a half-sister she didn’t know she had and discovers that no one is who they seem to be or who she thinks they are, including herself. By the end of this chapter of Maggie’s story, her efforts to uncover enemy secrets have exposed a darkness in and doubts about the world she thought she knew and everyone in it, including herself.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing is as graceful as ever, her plotting clever and breakneck paced, and her character development detailed and deep. In addition to that, she effortlessly weaves in history and period detail enriching the experience and taking the reader away into another time. Sadly, reading about Maggie fighting evil during World War II and one of her dear friends being gay-bashed spotlights uncomfortable parallels to the present. How has the world NOT learned the lessons that war should have taught about hate, bigotry, and narcissistic, pathological liars being elected to power? While reading this novel I had at least a reasonable expectation things would turn out okay in the end; an expectation I cannot, today, in the real world in which we live, think reasonable or likely.

But I loved this book and I’m not allowing myself number 4, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, until September. Well, that’s my plan. We’ll see if I — who cannot turn down a donut despite being supposedly seriously on a diet — can wait.

I read another of my series go-to authors in May, John Sandford’s 27th Lucas Davenport novel:

Golden Prey (Lucas Davenport #27), John Sandford, Hardcover, 416pp, April 2017, G.P. Putnam’s Sons

If you like Sandford, you like Sandford, and I really like him. I am a fan of both the Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series and in this installment we have Lucas able to choose his own assignments thanks to having (in an earlier novel) saved the life of a very Hillary Clinton-esque politician who, in this novel, is running for president. She loses. Which was a little too unhappy an ending for me. Again. I mean, I’m still on medication from the IRL election. I don’t need it in fiction, too.

It was a month for detective novels. The next two were:

My Darling Detective, Howard Norman, Hardcover, 256pp, March, 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  and

The Long Drop, Denise Mina, Hardcover, 240pp, May 2017, Little, Brown and Company

Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective is a noirish romp in which Jacob Rigolet, personal assistant to a wealthy collector of art, and his detective lover, Martha Crauchet, become caught up in a crime committed by his mother, Nora, during which investigation are uncovered secrets, connections, and surprises. All of this is done with quirky style and whimsical (though never twee) humour tightly woven in a suspenseful and rollicking mystery plot with an explosive, Mack Sennett-like finale. I’ll say this, it’s not like anything else I’ve lately read, and that is refreshing.

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a darker journey based on true events. It explores in disturbing and thought provoking ways what “guilty” means and the thin line between good guy and bad guy, and whether crossing the line — even for the greater good — is ever justified. Denise Mina is a smart writer who trusts the reader is also smart. I mean, when a modern novelist is courageous enough and has trust enough in her audience to make a Samuel Pepys reference, I say, “YES, MORE PLEASE.”

On an entirely different note, I read One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Paperback, 256pp, May 2017, Picador

— which was stunningly, often funnily, frequently painfully, open-veined, no boundaries, soul-searchingly wrought insight into being a woman, being of Indian ethnicity, being a daughter, being a lover, being human in today’s complicated, judgey, unforgiving, and often ridiculous world. Scaachi Koul has a gift for the pithy, hilarious, piercing one-liner coupled with the ability to quickly segue to a heartbreakingly honest confessional truism which leaves one saying, “Yes, exactly, I, too have felt that ache.” Caveat: I read this in one sitting which, I think, does it a great disservice because despite its drollery, it is a deeply serious work overall, in total, a sort of gut-punch of “wow, being not white, not male, not in the so-called club in this world sort of sucks.” Which, needless to say in these times, is a thing necessary to face, but, not particularly pleasant or easy to cope with.

And, finally, I end as I began, with a Twitter-pal, Pamela; she didn’t write the book, but, rather, read it and thought of me, recommended it a while ago, and it was only when making one of my regular visits to my friends at the local indie — The Curious Iguana — I remembered Pamela’s recommendation and picked it up. Wow. She knows me. So well.

Rules For Others To Live By: Comments & Self-Contradictions, Richard Greenberg, Hardcover, 320pp, October, 2016, Blue Rider Press

Richard Greenberg is the Tony Award Winning author of Take Me Out and many other perceptive, incisive, savvy, acute stage works. I am happy to say these essays — or, observations? —are every bit as sharp and moving and full of laughs, a-ha moments, and tears as are his plays — most of which straddle the line between comedy and drama, defying categorization.

Mr. Greenberg sculpts so many glorious lines I hesitate to choose among them, but, here goes.

She looked like an untaken photograph. There should have been a saxophone.

Success radiated from her like quills from a porcupine.

And there are many more surgically precise observations about people and places and situations, insights so imaginatively perceptive, one wants to approach Richard Greenberg, waving one’s hand like a child wanting the next piggyback ride from the big, strong, fun adult, pleading, “Do me! Me next!” so one might have one’s own Greenberg-metaphor to use forever as introduction so that one need never again try to explain one’s self. “Oh, lovely to meet you, my name is Charlie and I am like a place you visit infrequently which is never anything at all like you remember it; one of those night terrors where walls and doors and windows have all been rearranged into unfamiliar architecture through which you can’t find your way.”

Or, something like that only shorter and better. I feel as if Richard Greenberg could write me perfectly, because we are — save for his genius as a writer — alike in so many ways that as I read through the book I thought, perhaps, he’d been eavesdropping on my soul, or, he’d gotten the life I was supposed to have had. These:

Even in the thick of situations, and very happy about it, I don’t generally feel a part of things. I have a lot of friends who count on me to lend a sympathetic ear and give good counsel, but when I bother having a picture of myself…. As much as I enjoyed the party — as I enjoy most parties — in the cab after, I felt, as always, that I was heading back to freedom.

Serious people exist. But they tend to be drowned out by these others whose loudness, speed, shallowness, and ubiquity wear me down and diminish my capacity to go slow and think hard. It’ as though at some point it was decided the world was irreparably broken and all that’s left for us is to be connoisseurs of the wreckage.

I have a long history with people undergoing epiphanic breakthroughs, and it’s been demoralizing when it hasn’t been chilling.

When I am very old, I am going to become a walker. I am going to walk up and down the few streets of my neighborhood, taking everything in, and I will be wearing my green coat. Even in early spring, I will be wearing the green coat. It will be patched in places and threadbare in others. Already, my friend Linda has had to sew back on a button that fell off from sheer fatigue. I don’t discount the possibility that one day the buttons won’t all match. Some of them may not be flush with the buttonholes. This is fine by me. I will walk in my tattered garment, surveilling my immediate surroundings with a captious eye. People will start to notice me. I will become something of a local character.

I will have met my destiny, which is to be a flaneur, a walker in the city, as I would be already, were it not for my tendency to self-quarantine.

Yes. So precisely and decisively me, it is uncanny. Which Pamela saw. Which is why she suggested I read it, because reading it had, in her, done that a-ha thing of a bell ring of, “Oh, this is so much Charlie, he should read this.”

Because, you see, another thing I’ve in common with Richard Greenberg is a life-story where the time is measured not in years, but in the presence of remarkable women I have known, of which Pamela is one. We met on Twitter and then, because she urged me and arranged it we met in Washington, D.C. one day, which, for me, is something of a miracle since it required of me the panic-attack inducing activities of driving forty minutes to a Metro stop, boarding a train and riding 30 more minutes into D.C., and walking the city until the meet-up time — because so terrified am I of being late, and so every-time-I-do-it certain I will not be able to navigate the Metro and thus head hopelessly in the wrong direction — I arrived in the city approximately two hours before the appointed hour for the first in person embrace — of which I was also terrified. (See above faux Greenberg metaphor about me. I’m better long-distance and in writing than I am in person and long-exposure, both of which reveal me to be rather less of the good and more of the bad than I seem to be when able to edit — not that I manage to shorten anything when I edit — such as this; MOST of my editing/re-writing is about adding clarifying sentences and clauses and too effing many adjectives to try to explain myself — my virtual self, and excuse myself — my IRL self.)

Where was I? Oh, yes, Pamela. I’ll return to Richard Greenberg quotes:

I had no idea what she saw in me, but I didn’t question it….Some people say the same things in the same way to everyone they know. You think you’re conversing with them; you’re merely partnering their monologue. Jill had conversations that pertained to the person she was talking to. There was no double-dealing in this. She saw us.

That’s dear Pamela. Who has seen me — and I am not an easy see, and after having been seen require a lot of patience and effort at continuing to see — still, Pamela manages to find it in her heart to think of me when she reads a book she particularly likes and thinks I would enjoy. Like Rules For Others To Live By.

Remarkable women — by whom my life has been blessed — and remarkable books, like some in this blog entry. I hope for you, gentle reader, that your life has been as filled with the remarkable as has been mine.

Love and light and here I am, going.

Reading: February Final Reads/Roundup

In this edition I will be talking about PRINCESS ELIZABETH’S SPY, by Susan Elia MacNeal, and AUTUMN, by Ali Smith, as well as briefly recapitulating about and linking to my earlier February reads. But first, a word from my ego and superego, brought to you by my id.

I’ve a good reason for being a few days late with February reflections: I’ve been revisiting and reevaluating my life, an undertaking which has required being present in each moment of my physical reality, an effort which — while rewarding, illuminating, and renewing — results in a need for peaceful, quiet disconnecting, a positive sort of hermiting born of self-affirming and nurturing considerations rather than those triggers of fear and panicked retreating which have so often been the driving forces of my life.

But, I will spare you a fifteen-hundred word blathering about my personal journey and get on with being my book blogger self. The first of the two books from February about which I’ve not yet written was:

princess-elizabeths-spyPrincess Elizabeth’s Spy (Maggie Hope Mystery #2), by Susan Elia MacNeal, Paperback, 352pp, 2012, Bantam

What a pleasure it is to get reacquainted with old friends. I read of WW2 heroine Maggie Hope’s inadvertent adventuring into spydom in December of 2016 in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary and fell quite in love with both character and author. I’d discovered Susan Elia MacNeal on Twitter where her delightful posts and irresistible smile kept popping up in my feed because many of the bookworld types I follow followed her, and so, eager to sit at the table with the cool kids, I Continue reading