Book Reviews/Discussions

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

This title had been on my to be read pile for quite some time.  One of the upsides to the Covid Crisis has been that I am working my way through some really good books that I had never gotten around to reading.  In stark contrast to Star Spangled Scandal, this narrative nonfiction offering delivers the goods.  It is highly engaging, well written, and offers a glimpse of a lesser known episode in history.  I mean, who doesn’t love a murder mystery?  And unlike attempts to unmask Jack the Ripper, the solution turns out to be pretty convincing to the reader.  

The subtitle here is revealing:  The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Murder Mystery.  Indeed!  The year is 1800.  Erstwhile frenemies and uber-competitive New York Lawyers Burr and Hamilton are co-counsels for the defense and they definitely put on quite a show.  However, Hamilton-mania aside, there is much more to the book.  The lives of women and workaday people are revealed here as well.  When the body of Elma Sands was found in a well belonging to Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company (the water company he founded to get around banking monopolies held by Federalists in NY), he is already invested in trying to keep the scandal manageable.  But when Levi Weeks, master carpenter and general good guy is accused of the murder, he and Hamilton, along with Brockholst Livingston are hired by Ezra Weeks, Levi’s influential architect brother, to represent him at the trial.  All of this occurs during a Yellow Fever epidemic, no less.

The public were already convinced of Levi’s guilt, so it was something of an uphill battle.  Along the way, the reader is privy to many of the details of Burr’s and Hamiltons’s personal histories together. Fascinating stuff and much less worshipful of Hamilton as some kind of champion for the little guy, since he was not–that role actually belongs to Burr of all people. Fans of the musical may be unhappily surprised to find that Hamilton was not as great a hero, nor Burr a villain as portrayed, but I digress.

In the end, Burr and Hamilton pull off a Perry Mason–they accuse someone else of the murder and get their client off.  The author then does the reader the kindness of solving the crime and tidying up the loose ends.  Altogether, this is a highly readable, extremely interesting slice of Early Republic life, complete with the tangled webs of connection between families in New York society. The book is painstakingly endnoted and sources are listed for those who want to read more.

I impatiently await Burr the Musical

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What was the most surprising thing you found out while reading this book?  What surprised you about it?
  2. What would you like to learn more about after reading this book?  Why?
  3. Do you think the author was correct in his solution of the murder?  What did you find most or least convincing?
  4. How were the courtroom scenes different to what you expected?
  5. Was there anything not included in the book that you thought should have been, or included that you thought should have been left out?  Why?
Book Reviews/Discussions

Star Spangled Scandal by Chris DeRose

This is another case of a great story resulting in a mediocre (at best) book. I was extremely interested when I saw the blurb and I got an advance copy in e-galley form.  I finished it, because I wanted to write an honest and fair review, but dear reader, you will do better to read this article from American Heritage in 1967 to get the story without having to read this book.

At times plodding, Star Spangled Scandal reads like a court transcript with a few tabloid headlines thrown in for good measure.  Though there appears to have been research from the endnotes, there was no real synthesis of information, no art in the telling, and no argument made at all.  Most disappointing is its failure to add any new points of view, say from some of the women involved, who are treated as unimportant props.  There is too much detailed and mostly irrelevant background every time a new male character is introduced in the narrative; it clutters the book to the point of making it unenjoyable.

In the concluding section the author finally makes a point that would have been better made at the beginning as his argument and then shown through evidence–that the use of the temporary insanity defense and the “unwritten law” allowing men to murder other men who soiled their wives, sisters, and mothers, stemmed from this court case.  As it is, this section came too late to save the book.  In addition, historical errors abound.  One reviewer has already pointed out the national anthem error, but DeRose also mentions in passing that Marie Antoinette’s extravagance was to blame for the French Revolution, a ridiculous theory that has been debunked numerous times, only occasionally turning up among those who don’t know any better.

Save yourself the pain of reading this book and get the Sickles’ story from the Library of Congress instead.

You’re welcome.  🙂

Up next–A much better book about a murder trial from American History.

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

This has been sitting on my to be read pile for quite a while.  I originally received it as an e-galley, but decided to wait and buy it because I enjoy books more when they are in physical format.  I could tell this one would be one that would require some time and attention.

First, it is a beautifully written book. The pacing is slow, but not too slow, and as with many books I have read recently, time is fluid.  The reader floats between different events in the main characters’ lives, sometimes doubling back to see something from a different perspective/point of view. So, the first thing I would advise readers to do is to be prepared to savor this one.  It isn’t a beach read, but it also isn’t Proust. It fits quite nicely somewhere between. 

The novel opens at a party in the German hinterland in 1938. This party guests include a few Nazi sympathizers, but they are mostly intelligentsia, not fans of Hitler or his methods. From here, the reader sees in glimpses, the horrors of the war writ small. On everyday Germans, Poles, French, Jews, Russians–disaster is visited.  At the core of the novel are a group of mostly German resisters–they plotted to assassinate Hitler, but failed. After the men are executed, the women are left and Mariane von Lingenfels has promised to care for them and the children. She proves up to the task, but it is not easy.  There are so many secrets, so many ways people have been hurt and twisted by the war, that survival itself is heroic. Survival with a sense of human dignity and recognition of the humanity of others is even more heroic. 

Shattuck’s characters are finely drawn, even the children.  The reader feels the pain, humiliation, even the hunger portrayed, but Shattuck never goes for the cheap Nazi caricatures that so many other writers have left us with. The reader never gets all the details, and while that may be unsatisfying to some, it adds to the depth–just like real people are never presented to us as completely revealed, neither are these fictional characters. This is a character driven book, those looking for a plot will need to look elsewhere.  However, if you enjoy a beautiful story of struggle and hope, this one will suit you just fine.

Discussion Questions for your Reading Group:

  1. At the beginning when Mariane is first “assigned” to care for the women and children of the plotters, she feels it is a lesser task, but by the end, she has changed her mind.  How do you view this assignment?
  2. Which of the three main women–Mariane, Benita, or Ania do you most identify with and why?
  3. Mariane doesn’t want Herr Muller to come to the castle and she actively thwarts his relationship with Benita.  Do you agree with her assessment? What would you have done in her place?
  4. We often read novels where the protagonists succeed in their rebellion, or pull off an impossible mission.  How does The Women in the Castle differ from these types of novels?
  5. What do you think about the final fate of the castle?  How does this relate to Mariane’s mission to care for the women and children?
Austenalia, Book Reviews/Discussions

Darkness at Pemberly by T. H. White

If you have read my earlier post about the Austen in Austin exhibit at the Ransom Center in Austin, you will have seen a reference to this book in my comments.  After I visited the exhibit and heard Janine’s talk, I had to find the book and read it.  This little book combined two of my favorite things, or so I thought…a cozy mystery and Jane Austen.

Well dear reader, the book was fun to read if you are a fan of the cozy mystery genre; it was sort of Agatha Christie meets Dashiell Hammett sprinkled with a few Austen references for the heck of it.  Originally published in 1932, it attempts to straddle the English village mystery and the hard-boiled detective story, and manages to do it somewhat successfully. Our detective, aptly named Buller, is an English copper who retires after he is unable to gather the evidence necessary to arrest a crazed killer who confesses in the first part of the book.  I’ll admit, I was scratching my head for the first 92 pages trying to figure out why Pemberly was even in the title, since neither the estate, nor any Darcys were yet to be found.  However, I persisted. And was rewarded in part the second when the detective inspector, now retired, is revealed to be a friend of Sir Charles Darcy, descendant of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, and his sister Elizabeth.  Sir Charles is a little bit of a ne’er do well–he has even served time in prison–and a slight hothead. I won’t ruin it for you, but Sir Charles becomes embroiled with the diabolical murderer from part the first and Pemberly becomes the setting for most of the rest of the Novella as the cast of characters, including chemists, butlers, and more try to avoid being the next victim and catch the killer before he can do in Charles or Elizabeth.  Needless to say, there is a very chaste romance between Buller and the 1930s Elizabeth, who is a “modern” woman of the era. 

All’s well that ends well and readers expecting everything tied up and explained by the end will not be disappointed.  It was satisfying as a mystery, less so as Austen fan fiction, but I am not sure what I was expecting from T. H. White, he of The Once and Future King. If you only read it as a curiosity, it will be worth it, it doesn’t take long at only 286 pages, and it is intriguing to see how White imagines the progeny of the Darcys and the decline of Pemberly. Copies are readily available on Amazon.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Review: The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

It is true that neither of these titles is new, but they are worth consideration for mystery fans, especially fans of the mystery sub-genre, lovingly called “cozies.”

If you are looking for a little light reading to get you through quarantine, these two Horowitz gems may do the trick.  Full disclosure–I am a Horowitz fan!

These are sort up updated versions of an English Cozy mystery, starring Hawthorne, an ex-cop who is something of a mystery himself.  The gimmick, if you want to call it that is that these are Roman a clefs of a sort–Horowitz has made himself a character in the books and there are real people who appear in the stories, like his wife, Jill Green a television producer, and even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson). So the identities are not secret as in a traditional Roman a clef, but there is the sense that the reader is in the “real” world of famous people.

First, the positives.  Since Horowitz is the narrator, the reader never has to really fear for his life, even when it looks like the murderer might get him.  He has to live to finish writing the book! The mysteries are serviceable, though if you are a frequent mystery reader, you may figure it out before the narrator.   I think perhaps Horowitz is letting the reader feel smart by writing them that way…They are not too long and the reader does get most of the clues–I hate it when there are unknown clues at the end during the big reveal. Horowitz is fairly self-deprecating as the narrator and there are Easter eggs for Horowitz fans, enjoy! The pacing is good and there is a decent amount of suspense.

Now the negatives. Hawthorne is kind of strange and mostly unlikeable, not a deal killer, but I did feel like in both books the narrator spent rather too much time trying to figure out Hawthorne and too little on the actual mystery. As is often the case with a Roman a clef-ish book, there is a lot of name-dropping.  This can become tedious and tiresome; making the reader feel excluded rather than included in the world of the glitterati. Some of us would really like to get on with solving the crime and don’t really care about blowhard actors, etc.

I think these two titles will most appeal to readers who are already fans of Horowitz’s television writing (Midsommer Murders, Foyle’s War).  His earlier mystery–The Magpie Murders was much superior. It was a cleverly done novel within a novel–a frame story. But these are nice ways to pass the time on a rainy day.

Book Reviews/Discussions

Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun

If you are a GenX woman, this is the support group you’ve been looking for–you are not imagining it, being GenX sucks. Squeezed between Boomers and Millenials, GenX has gotten a bad wrap for being whiners, but as this book shows, we’ve got plenty to whine about.

It’s not all bad news, though.  If you are a woman of a certain age, go immediately to chapter 9: Perimenopause for a section that will make you laugh out loud and give you hope, because you’ll know you are not alone. 

And really, that is the main takeaway from this book–you’re not imagining it and you’re not alone! Reading this book is ultimately an exercise in hope; give yourself permission not to excel at everything. Sometimes your family has to eat take out and sometimes you buy the birthday cake and it’s okay–society doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  Also, maybe your career isn’t glamorous or especially fulfilling, but that’s okay, too. The world needs all kinds of people doing all kinds of jobs. Learning to let go of unrealistic expectations if the first step toward feeling better–and know this: midlife, like most things, including coronavirus, won’t last forever. Things will get better and GenX can still save the world!!!

Book Reviews/Discussions

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Ten years ago Maya was on the LA jury that acquitted Bobby Nock, accused murderer of one of his students with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship. The jury’s names were leaked to the press and none of them have had any peace since.  Most of the public believed Bobby was guilty and they could neither understand the jury’s decision nor leave them alone after the trial. In the intervening years, Maya has become a defense attorney, determined to make the system work better. Most of the jurors haven’t really kept in contact, but for the 10th anniversary, a reality TV show wants to get them all together to rehash the trial and their verdict.  Rick, another juror, claims to have found evidence that will prove Bobby did in fact commit the crime; Maya is still convinced he was innocent and would rather pass on the TV show, but her boss convinces her it would be good for the firm for her to be on the show. When another murder takes place during the reunion, Maya is propelled into a search for the truth in both the past and the present.

Told from varying perspectives–each juror has a story–interwoven with Maya’s story, The Holdout is a thriller that does not disappoint.  Readers of Moore’s earlier novel, The Sherlockian, will enjoy this one as well. Suspense, mystery, a level of both unpredictability and storytelling skill that is sadly lacking in most thrillers.  

If you are looking for something to read while you wait out the Corona Virus, pick this one up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the premise that most people who have jury duty see it as an important responsibility related to self-government?  Why or Why not?
  2. Do you think the setting of Los Angeles adds to the story, or could the novel be set anywhere? Why or why not?
  3. Before the final reveal, where had you landed on Bobby’s guilt? What made you think what you did?
  4. Which juror’s story did you most identify with?  Why?
  5. How does this novel change the way you view the justice system? If not, why not?
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

I was really looking forward to reading this book.  I love classic Hollywood movies and I had seen movies with Hedy Lamarr when none of my friends even knew who she was.  I was further thrilled several years ago, when I found out she was also an inventor. It was so cool! So, I thought the story would be great…sadly, Benedict took a fantastic story and made it into a bland dime a dozen romance novel. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

The writing was flat, the characters were dull, even Hedy, and the prose was laced with anachronisms.  If you are going to write historical fiction PLEASE do your research. I did not keep an exhaustive list, but the term “pimped out” was used, which would not have been used that way in the 1930s. 

We still managed to have a good discussion for our book club, but mostly because we discussed the real Hedy Lamarr, not the book. It is not actively bad, but it just wasn’t very good, and I would think that when one has source material as rich as Hedy Lamarr, Austria in the 1930s, Hollywood, and revolutionary communications technology, one could do better. The narrative was extremely limited by the author’s choice of first person point of view.  I think that was probably the most damaging mistake beyond the obvious lack of research for the dialogue. The use of so called symbolism was too heavy handed and ineffective. If the symbols are too overt, they lose meaning. I wish her editor had been more active and helped her to make better choices in her writing. I have also read Carnegie’s Maid by the same author and found it disappointing as well. I will not be reading future books by this author unless she ups her game significantly. I appreciate her desire to bring women’s stories to readers, but I would like to see the stories told with more skill and care.

If your book club chooses this one, here are some questions that might be of use to you:

  1. What did you think of Mrs. Kiesler’s explanation to Hedy about why she had been distant toward her?  Do you think it was believable? Why or why not? 
  2. Given the choices Hedy had, what do you think of the decisions she made: to marry Fritz? To escape? 
  3. Hedy was very brave in her escape from Austria, what aspect of her journey would you have liked to know more about in the book?
  4. Do you think the first person POV was effective in this novel?  Why or why not?
  5. What do you think about Fritz’s theory about money and power? How did that work out for him? 
  6. Did you think the “symbolism” of masks was effectively used in the novel? Why or why not?
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Basically, this is a love letter to librarians, so I was definitely in. Moyes tells the story of the pack horse librarians of the Depression through a set of brave and likable female protagonists. Alice married Bennett Van Cleve after whirlwind courtship in her native England while he was on holiday, only to come down to earth in rural Kentucky where  she and her husband still live with her domineering father-in-law. Margery O’Hare is a strong-willed woman with a mind of her own during a time when that quality is not universally admired. (Has it ever been?) Izzie has suffered from polio and the social difficulties produced by it. Sophia is a highly educated African American woman whose brother was wounded in a recent mining accident. She has trouble fitting in anywhere, but the library provides her peace and purpose. Coal is king, and the Van Cleves own the mines. Alice doesn’t realize until most of the way through the novel that her family is literally living on the back-breaking work of the poor families in town.

The Giver of Stars touches on many issues which are still relevant without being heavy-handed.  The characters are warm and complex–even the villains. There are some unexpected turns, both good and not so good.  Happily, as most librarians would wish, knowledge and enlightenment triumph over ignorance and venom.

This would make a good discussion for book clubs.  Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Which of the four librarians do you identify most with?  Why?
  2. Did you guess the departed Mrs. Van Cleve’s true plight before it was revealed? What were the clues, either looking back after you knew or that tipped you off?
  3. What would you say is the theme of the novel?  What supports this idea?
  4. Who do you think the “Giver of Stars” in the title is?
  5. Why do you think the pack horse library program came to an end?  What are some modern equivalents to the idea?
  6. Put yourself in 1935 Kentucky. Would you have volunteered to be a librarian given the risks involved?  Why or why not? 
Book Reviews/Discussions

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

First, a Shout-out to a local Austin writer–yay!  This novel combines a few of my favorite things: spies, intrigue, and literature, oh my! I am sure other reviewers have pointed this out, but I would also like to make sure everyone notes the irony of the author’s first name being the name of the main character in the novel that this book is about, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I think there might be some backstory there.  

The Secrets We Kept conjures up the early days of the CIA, when Ivy League frat boys dreamed of a world without communism and thought that they could win the propaganda war with the Soviets. The office girls were mostly typists and secretaries, but a few worked their way up–I have made a note to myself to do some research on early CIA work–there have been a rash of new histories and biographies coming our telling the stories of women we never knew about from the files, now that they are being declassified. I have found it inspirational lately that there are more writers and historians telling women’s stories.  Women who had previously been footnotes have been getting more press; some like Hedy Lamar, are even getting long overdue recognition. So I appreciate Prescott’s novel for going behind the scenes from a woman’s point of view.

The story follows a group of women who work in the typing pool of the CIA offices, when they were located on E Street in D.C, before Langley. The point of view changes as the story unfolds, with different women, some main characters, others bit players, but this is one of the best tools Prescott uses.  The shifting first person narrative lets the reader know more than any one character knows, so even though the reader is not omniscient, she almost feels that way. Parallel plots unfold. The first fictionalizes the circuitous route Boris Paternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago took–smuggled out of Russia and published first in Italy, then throughout the West.  This plot includes the now well known tale of its publication in Russian by the CIA and distribution to Soviet citizens attending the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Read more about that here. Pasternak was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As is often the case, the women in Pasternak’s life, including his inspiration for Lara don’t fare so well.  You’ll need to read the book. The other plot in the novel concerns a second generation Russian immigrant, displaced by the turmoil of World War II when her mother fled to the United States and her father was grabbed by secret police just as they were about to board a ship. Irina gets a job at the fledgling CIA as a typist, but is marked out early for “other work” because of her Russian background, fluency in the language, and various talents. 

The Secrets We Kept has much to recommend it. The characters are interesting and Prescott uses the chapter titles to track their growth and change over the course of the novel. Suspense abounds, especially in the scenes at the World’s Fair and the Italian publisher’s party, but neither gratuitous violence nor action derails the plot.  The reader sweats bullets when Irina is dressed as a nun trying to convince Russians to take the little book back to the USSR, read it, and pass it on. Prescott does a wonderful job evoking the period; the clothes, the manners, the way the men treat the women, it’s all there. In addition, the reader is treated to a different look at Boris Pasternak–he is a genius, but he had help, as so many geniuses do from the women in his life, who largely went unacknowledged. It is the Mistress’s story that gripped me the most.  She suffered for his art more than he did, at least in this telling.

This is a quiet novel, which will give the reader much to think on.  It successfully threads the needle by presenting the past without nostalgia and without harsh judgement by modern standards.  It is a story of struggle, love, and hope for the future. It is also the often untold story of women in history and literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which character was your favorite and why?
  2. Do you think books can change the world? Why or why not–give examples.
  3. What do you think were the secrets referred to in the title?  How does the title have multiple meanings?
  4. Does this book make you want to read Dr. Zhivago?  Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of other examples where the history we know is not the whole story? 
  6. How can we make sure that “the rest of the story” is told moving forward?
  7. There are a lot of sacrifices in the novel–Irina’s mother and father, Pasternak’s mistress. Which characters in the novel do you think suffered the most? Which sacrifices were the most meaningful?  Can you think of any real life examples of sacrifices like the ones in the novel?