Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hurricane by Jewell Parker Rhodes

As promised last year, here is my review of the third and final volume that completes Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Marie Laveau mystery trilogy starring the famous New Orleans’ voodoo queen’s descendant, Dr. Marie Levant.

The book begins with Dr. Marie, who has since changed her last name from Levant to Laveau, driving south, following a disturbing dream. This leads her to a shack deep in the Louisiana bayou where a family of three-father, mother, and child—lie dead; all have been murdered. When she goes to report the crime to the local sheriff, his brother takes her to their home and introduces her to their grandmother, Nana, an old voodoo woman, blind and riddled with cancer, who foretold Marie’s coming.

The town of Delaire has no doctor, everyone has always relied on Nana and her powers whenever they were ailing, and hearing that there is a real medical doctor in their midst, the locals flock to Nana’s house to see Marie. Strangely, many of them suffer from cancer and other diseases and have lived longer than they should have without modern medical care.

Marie does the best she can for them, but when she discovers that the sheriff has covered up the murders, burning the crime scene, she is furious and returns to New Orleans. There the police also show no inclination to investigate and advise her to just let it go. There are other things to worry about. The weather reports are full of a brewing tropical storm called Katrina and everyone is wondering if this will turn out to be “the big one.”

After a colleague is killed, possibly because she was mistaken for Marie, Marie races back to bayou country accompanied by a handsome red-haired Cajun doctor, K-Paul who wants to be more than just a friend to her. Marie is also perplexed by visions of two loas, Voodoo spirits, one half male and half female who freely shifts between the two genders, the other a teal mermaid water goddess.

Marie soon discovers the secret in Delaire that the powers that be hoped to keep buried—the preponderance of cancer and other illnesses in the area is due to environmental factors, oil pollution and damage caused and covered up by Vivco Oil. And Nana helped her people by using her powers as a sin eater to swallow their illnesses until she literally bit off more than she could chew and became sick herself.

And as the great storm of Katrina rages, battering New Orleans, it’s up to Marie Levant-Laveau to save the day.

Though I personally thought it the weakest volume in the trilogy, Hurricane kept my attention from start to end. I confess that, being long familiar with the legends about the real Marie Laveau and the stories told about her being swept up by a hurricane and presumed dead, I hoped the author would tie these into the series finale in some way, but they were never mentioned. But I always liked the heroine she created, and I was a little sorry to see her go, and could not help but wish her well, though at the same time I was also glad that this was not being stretched into an ongoing series. It was time to say goodbye and Ms. Rhodes ended it all upon a positive note.

Note: The first two books, Voodoo Season and Yellow Moon have since been reissued in trade paperback with their titles shortened simply to Season and Moon, you can find my reviews of both, under their original titles by either searching this blog or scrolling through the list of labels on the far right side of the screen.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

fathermothergod My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse



Lucia and her siblings had what appeared at first glance to be a privileged childhood, they lived in nice houses, went to private schools, summer camps, country clubs, skiing trips, and accompanied their loving parents on foreign vacations, and even spent some time living aboard in England. But everything is not always what it seems. When it came to illnesses and accidents a darker truth was revealed—Lucia’s family were Christian Sciences, followers of the religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy, which denied the existence of all disease and sickness. When someone got sick, they were described as “working through a problem” and instead of taking aspirin or any other medication or calling the doctor they called their Christian Science practitioner and resorted to prayer instead.

Lucia realized early that she had no faith in her parents religion. When she began to have trouble seeing the blackboard in school and suffering headaches and realized she needed glasses it was seen as a rebellion, a betrayal of their faith, when she went to an ophthalmologist. “You’re just giving in to prevailing erroneous thought,” her father told her. Lucia wisely did not listen and got her glasses.

Most of this memoir deals with what happened when Lucia’s mother became ill with cancer and the siblings long battle to get their mother proper medical care. Dealing with their father’s stubborn insistence that she was getting better and “making good progress” was like slamming up against a brick wall and they also had to cope with the justifiable anger, albeit sometimes misplaced, of their non-Christian Science relatives, especially their doctor uncle and their nurse grandmother, when they became aware of her condition. And you can really feel their frustration, it seeps out of every page. A tumor that began in her rectum gradually eroded the wall between her bowel and vagina leaving her in agonizing pain, suffering from infection and malnutrition, and by the time she taken to a hospital it was too late to save her. She was only fifty years old.

For those who enjoy memoirs about non-celebrities in extraordinary situations or explorations of different religions this is a very interesting and heart-breaking and highly readable book it kept me up until 6:00 a.m. and within minutes of waking up I was reaching for it again.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Fasting Girl A True Victorian Medical Mystery by Michelle Stacey





This book explores the Victorian phenomena known as “fasting girls” an anomaly slightly above the sordid fringes of the sideshows in which proper, respectable Victorian girls baffled society and the medical and scientific communities by seeming to exist only on air, miraculously taking little or no nourishment for years. Several cases and all the various theories, including fraud, hysteria, eating disorders such as anorexia, are fully explored as are and social conventions about the feminine appetite, the fashionable Victorian complaints of dyspepsia and neurasthenia, and the Cult of the Invalid, as typified by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Alice James, the clash between the titans of religion and science, the heyday of spiritualism and the infancy of psychology and the birth of neurology. But the primary focus of the book is Mollie Fancher, the most famous of all the fasting girls.

In 1865, eighteen-year-old Mollie was injured when her hoop skirt caught upon a hook as she descended from a horse-drawn street car. She was dragged about a block before she was rescued and carried to her home in Brooklyn, New York. She never left her bed again. She began to exhibit a bewildering array of symptoms—paralysis, seizures, blindness, clairvoyance, multiple personalities, trances of varying duration in which she lay like one dead, and an inability to retain nourishment. Apart from a few miniscule sips of milk punch, beef tea, and bits of banana and bites of crackers, not enough to keep a body alive, she ate nothing at all for many years. While the invalid stoically endured her suffering, the newspapers took up the story and her symptoms, rather real or fake, were hotly debated until her death in 1916 shortly after celebrating the 50th anniversary of her becoming an invalid.

Don’t be daunted by the fact that this book covers such a wide spectrum of psychology, sociology, and science; it is not too complex or scholarly for the general reader. I found it fascinating from start to end and learned many new things. For instance, I always thought anorexia was a modern condition and was surprised to learn that even in the Victorian era which considered full hips fashionable, the thinness and pallor of consumptives and invalids was considered an ethereal and virtuous form of beauty, almost saintly. And if you are interested in the Victorian era, this book offers a peek behind the prim and proper lace curtains of the invalid’s bedchamber and the doctor’s office that readers rarely encounter. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy reading historical non-fiction and books about medicine and psychology that are not over the general reader’s head.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel



This novel is loosely based on the true story of Charles Byrne, the real-life “Irish Giant” who exhibited himself in London in the late eighteenth century, and whose bones were coveted, and dubiously acquired, by surgeon John Hunter and are today displayed in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons alongside the diminutive skeleton of Caroline Crachami, “The Sicilian Fairy.”

The story begins in 1782 with Charles O’Brien and his band of followers quitting poverty and hunger stricken Ireland to make their fortune in London. The giant has a talent for telling Irish folk and fairy tales, songs, and poems, and this puts him a cut above the average giant working the sideshow circuit. Some of these stories are included and are one of the book’s best features. On the advice of his manager, the Giant changes his name to Charles Byrne, to sound more refined and attract a better class of custom.

Entwined with the Giant’s story is that of John Hunter, a poor Scottish farm lad whose ambition and determination pays off when he becomes London’s most renowned surgeon. He is a dedicated, obsessive man who in his quest for knowledge regularly consorts with bodysnatchers, experiments with artificial insemination, and even accidentally inflicts himself with syphilis while attempting to inject a pauper with the virus, but shrugs it off as this will allow him to chart the course of the disease better. He keeps abreast of any of nature’s oddities on display in London, hoping to dissect them and add their bones to his collection when Death calling, and when he sees Charles Byrne he becomes obsessed with adding his skeleton to his collection.

This is a rather sparse, bleak tale of the pursuit of, and fleeting nature, of fame and fortune. The Giant’s time as a star attraction doesn’t last, and neither does the money. More than once he is forced to reduce his price and change to cheaper lodgings and cater to a lower class of customers to keep in business. Friendships and loyalties fray, disillusionment sets in, though life is better than it was in Ireland the Irish are treated badly, and as his health begins to deteriorate, his band of followers, blinded by the glitter of gold, are tempted by Hunter’s offer to purchase the Giant’s remains.

For those who are interested in the history of medicine, bodysnatching, sideshows and human oddities, Irish folktales, and the not so glamorous life in 18th century London, this is certainly a worthwhile read.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Better Image of The Queen's Pleasure Cover Art








THE QUEEN'S PLEASURE by Brandy Purdy


When young Robert Dudley, an earl’s son, meets squire’s daughter Amy Robsart, it is love at first sight. They marry despite parental misgivings, but their passion quickly fades, and the ambitious Dudley returns to court.

Swept up in the turmoil of Tudor politics, Dudley is imprisoned in the Tower. Also a prisoner is Dudley’s childhood playmate, the princess Elizabeth. In the shadow of the axe, their passion ignites. When Elizabeth becomes queen, rumors rage that Dudley means to free himself of Amy in order to wed her. And when Amy is found dead in unlikely circumstances, suspicion falls on Dudley—and the Queen…

Still hotly debated amongst scholars—was Amy’s death an accident, suicide, or murder?—the fascinating subject matter makes for an enthralling read for fans of historical fiction.
Please note this book is published in the UK as A COURT AFFAIR by Emily Purdy.




Monday, November 7, 2011

Now Available For Pre-Order at Amazon: The Queen's Pleasure by Brandy Purdy




THE QUEEN'S PLEASURE by Brandy Purdy


When young Robert Dudley, an earl’s son, meets squire’s daughter Amy Robsart, it is love at first sight. They marry despite parental misgivings, but their passion quickly fades, and the ambitious Dudley returns to court.

Swept up in the turmoil of Tudor politics, Dudley is imprisoned in the Tower. Also a prisoner is Dudley’s childhood playmate, the princess Elizabeth. In the shadow of the axe, their passion ignites. When Elizabeth becomes queen, rumors rage that Dudley means to free himself of Amy in order to wed her. And when Amy is found dead in unlikely circumstances, suspicion falls on Dudley—and the Queen…

Still hotly debated amongst scholars—was Amy’s death an accident, suicide, or murder?—the fascinating subject matter makes for an enthralling read for fans of historical fiction.
Please note this book is published in the UK as A COURT AFFAIR by Emily Purdy.



Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Smallest Of All Persons Mentioned In The Records Of Littleness by Gaby Wood






This brief little book with the very long title tells the story of the brief and very tragic life of Caroline Crachami, the famous “Sicilian Fairy,” a dainty dwarf only one foot ten and a half inches tall who died in 1824 while being exhibited in London.

Her life began in Palermo, she was born the day after the Battle of Waterloo. A rather unlikely story claimed that Caroline’s diminutive size was the result of the then commonly held belief in “maternal impressions” which meant that any fright or horrific sight experienced by an expectant woman could result in a deformity to her child. In Caroline’s case it was said an escaped monkey had crawled between her mother’s legs as she lay sleeping and when Mrs. Crachami reached down in her sleep to scratch her private parts the monkey bit her. Her child was born shortly after weighing only a pound. The Crachamis later emigrated to Ireland where Caroline’s father found work as a musician at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. But dainty Caroline proved sickly. A Dr. Gilligan diagnosed consumption and persuaded her parents to allow him to take their daughter to London, the climate there would be better for her, he explained, and, in the interests of science, he convinced the concerned parents to allow him to briefly exhibit their remarkable offspring.

If the Crachamis equated brevity with ease, they were sadly mistaken. Caroline’s time as one of the most popular human oddities being exhibited in London was brief only because exhaustion combined with tuberculosis soon sapped her life away. While on display in Mayfair she sometimes received as many as 200 visitors a day who, for the cost of an extra shilling, were allowed to handle this living doll. She was even taken to Carlton House for an audience with King George IV. After an exhausting day on display Caroline expired, supposedly at the age of nine, though modern science estimates her age was more likely closer to three.

Dr. Gilligan sold her body to the Royal College of Surgeons and the devastated Mr. Crachami, who had read about his daughter’s death in a newspaper, arrived just in time to walk in as she was being dissected. Today her skeleton, like an ivory bead and filigree sculpture, is displayed in the Hunterian Museum alongside the seven foot ten inch skeleton of “The Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, along with a glass case containing wax casts of her three inch foot, her arm, and her death mask, as well as a pair of her beribboned ballet slippers, a thimble, silk sock, and ruby ring.

This slim volume presents the meager facts that are known about the life of Caroline Crachami and makes intriguing reading.



Saturday, November 5, 2011

Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban



Irving Goodman readily admits that he is a dirty old man. An eighty-three-year-old widower who was happily, and faithfully, married for twenty-seven years, he has just fallen in love again. But the only problem is that this is 2003 and the object of his affections, Justine Trimble, the perky blonde star of 1950s era Hollywood B-westerns has been dead for forty-seven years.

Luckily, Irving has a friend, a tech wizard named Istavan Fallock, who will find a way to resurrect Justine from the black and white vhs videotape and bring to life a real living and breathing 3-D Justine that Irving can get his lusty hands upon. But, as always happens, problems arise. The first is that after his first glimpse of Justine Istavan decides that he wants her all for himself. The second is that Justine needs blood, and lots of it, to keep her in glorious Technicolor, otherwise she fades back to black and white and soon the sexy vampire cowgirl is on the prowl in London and the police are investigating the bloodless corpses she leaves in her wake.

This is one of those books that sounds much better than it actually is. I saved it for months while I was working on my last novel, looking forward to reading it, anticipating a real treat, only to be let down. It’s not awful, it’s an ok little book, only 132 pages long, good for a quick read, but the magic was lacking, it’s like the literary equivalent of today’s direct to video or dvd horror movie releases.