Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cemetery Girl by David Bell

Tom and Abby Stuart had a pretty good life in a small Midwestern college town, until the day their daughter, twelve-year-old Caitlin, vanished while walking her dog, Frosty, in the park. Rumors abounded that she had runaway, that she was pregnant, or the victim of an online predator. Doggedly, her parents followed every clue, but they all led nowhere.

As often happens, guilt and anger took their toll, and their marriage couldn’t survive the loss of their daughter. Four years later, Abby wants to put it all behind her, in her quest to move forward she orders a tombstone and arranges a memorial service in the cemetery. She even insists that Tom take Caitlin’s dog to the animal shelter, seeing the old yellow lab as a constant reminder of the tragedy. Tom refuses to attend; he sees it as giving up on Caitlin.

Then a tantalizing clue comes from a stripper dancing at the Love Shack, she claims to have seen Caitlin there in the company of a man in his fifties with a very controlling manner. Then, like a miracle, a dirty and disheveled Caitlin, now sixteen, is found in the cemetery. She refuses to discuss what happened or where she has been the past four years. Her long blonde hair has been crudely hacked off but there is no obvious evidence of assault, though a medical examination reveals that she is no longer a virgin.

When a suspect, fifty-three-year-old John Colter is arrested, Caitlin declares she loves him, that she wants to go back to him, not stay with her parents, and refuses to testify in court against him.

Desperate not to let the man who took his daughter not get away with it, Tom is determined to discover the truth no matter where it leads him.

This was an interesting book, a fast read, and not your typical missing child story. And, true to life, everything isn’t tied up in a neat little ball by the last page, though the book is over, one has the sense that the story will go on; everything will probably work out eventually, but there is still a whiff of uncertainty like the scent of leaves burning in the distance carried on the air.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Mozart Conspiracy by Scott Mariani

Following the trend set by the bestselling The Da Vinci Code, this is yet another novel that blends past and present to create a fast-paced modern-day thriller when secrets and relics of the past can still claim lives centuries later.

When opera star Leigh Llewellyn’s brother dies under mysterious circumstances she asks her first love, Ben Hope, an ex British Special Air Service officer to investigate. Could Oliver Llewellyn’s supposedly drunken fall through the ice covering a frozen lake be connected to his unfinished book about Mozart?

As Ben and Leigh delve into Oliver’s files they disvoer that Mozart’s ties to freemasonry may have led to his murder at the hands of a powerful, elitist splinter group known as the Order of Ra. And the search is on to find a letter, supposed by many to have been a fraud, which, if authentic may prove that the famous composer was indeed poisoned.

When they receive a video of a man having his tongue cut out and then being disemboweled in a ritual sacrifice they learn that the Order of Ra is alive and well and will stop at nothing to keep their secret safe and Ben and Leigh are soon running for their lives across Europe with a band of assassins on their heels.

Overall, this was a pretty good mystery/thriller, it kept my attention and I flew through it. I personally thought it would have been a much better book if instead of being set entirely in modern times it had been interlaced with some 18th century scenes of Mozart’s life and last days, but don’t let that keep you from giving this a try if the storyline piques your interest. If you like thrillers laced with history and are interested in Mozart and the freemasons this might be a good book to curl up and pass some time with.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Early Review of The Queen's Pleasure by Brandy Purdy (A Court Affair by Emily Purdy)

Heather Domin's review of The Queen's Pleasure

Thanks so much Heather, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

First Look at British Cover Art for A Court Affair (The Queen's Pleasure)

This is the cover art for A Court Affair by Emily Purdy, the British edition of The Queen's Pleasure. It will be published in the UK on August 2, 2012.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

This novel follows the lives of the Novak family a Polish-Italian clan that make their home in the Philadelphia coal mining town of Bakerton. The book takes its title from the communities most striking landmark two towering eighty foot heaps of scrap coal that glow faintly orange and give a strong whiff of sulfur whenever the wind blows.

When the story begins in 1944, eldest son Georgie is away serving in the South Pacific, one of the many young men drafted during World War II, and Stanley, the Polish patriarch of the family, has just keeled over dead while shaving in the basement. His Italian widow, the voluptuous Rose, develops a sudden insatiable craving for sweets, curious since she never really cared for them before, and goes on to nurture this craving into fat and diabetes, which in time leads to blindness and death. He also leaves behind three daughters. The eldest, shy spinsterish Dorothy takes a government typing job in Washington but suffers a nervous breakdown and has to come home to Bakerton, where she begins an affair with Angelo “Angie” Bernardi, the scandalously divorced nephew of the local Italian Catholic undertaker. Her younger sister, Joyce, is a disciplined scholar who joins a women’s division of the Air Force, wanting to do something important with her life, only to discover that the true, unpublicized motto of the armed forces is not “Serve With Honor” as the recruiting posters proudly proclaim, but “service the men who serve your country.” Disillusioned, when her term of service expires she doesn’t reenlist, citing her mother’s ill health as the reason and returns to Bakerton, to become the family disciplinarian and try to get her mother’s diabetes under control. When she goes looking for work she discovers that her service record doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, the jobs go to the men and veterans first, and she has to resign herself to spending her days sitting behind a sewing machine at the Bakerton Dress Company, which employs most of Bakerton’s working women. But her luck changes, for the better, when she goes to the high school in response to a letter sent home about her little brother, charming, affable wild child Sandy, and meets Ed Hauser, the vice principal. When his secretary has to go on maternity leave, he offers Joyce her job, and the two begin dating and after a lengthy, rather frigid, courtship eventually marry. The third Novak daughter, Lucy, the baby of the family, struggles with her weight and loneliness, silently resenting the control Joyce wields over the household. Only Georgie, the eldest son, truly escapes Bakerton, after the war he gives up his dream of being a doctor and marries into a family that owns a famous department store, but his happiness doesn’t last as his beautiful free-spirited wife, Marion, a wry, sarcastic witted woman who slept in the nude and rose, without dressing, to paint abstract paintings every morning, descends into blank-minded mental illness after the birth of their only son. The novel ends in the late 1950s after a tragedy results in the decline of Bakerton as the heyday of coal peters out.

This is a very interesting novel about life in a coal mining town, like an apple pie slice of American life, though not at all idealized or picturesque, of the immigrants who toiled in the mines and suffered the consequences—the explosions, cave-ins, and Black Lung Disease, shopped in the company store and lived in company houses, and what life was like for their families, all the crises, dramas, and joys. The story moves along at a surprisingly rapid pace, having read the author’s modern-day novel, The Condition, which I found rather slow and plodding, I was a little wary about starting this one, but I am so glad that I did, I read it cover to cover in two days and highly recommend it to anyone who likes novels set in the 1940s and 1950s or stories about small town life.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tabby's Titanic Tribute

Tabby proudly shows off her collection of Titanic books in honor of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of "the ship of dreams." In the first two pictures she is pretending to be an iceberg and posing with the little Titanic trinket box that sets on my dresser. In the third she is wearing her sailor dress.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Falling Stars 10 Who Tried To Be A Movie Star by David M. Menefee

This was a fun book to read, one I was really looking forward to. Despite the title, this book does not take a negative tone, rather than being about failure, it celebrates endeavor. All ten of the early 20th century personalities profiled here undeniably had talent, but sometimes talent alone is not enough, sometimes the time or place is just wrong. A prime example of this is the great tenor Enrico Caruso, in silent films, where moviegoers could not hear his famous voice, the dice were loaded against him from the start, but he tried, and for that he deserves applause.

Helen Keller, for example, being blind and deaf seems a most unlikely candidate for movie stardom. Just directing her would be a serious obstacle, one that was eventually overcome by having the director stamp his foot hard upon the floor to create vibrations that would signal “ACTION!” to Helen and having her companion always on the set to spell instructions into her hand to convey what the scene was about and the emotions it was necessary for her convey. But movies were the number one source of entertainment in America and Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, wanted to utilize them to convey the inspirational story of her life and to give hope and encouragement to handicapped people everywhere. But the scriptwriter they hired had some rather grandiose ideas about how to tell the story and DELIVERANCE ended up being a heavy-handed, highbrow mess of allegorical imagery and symbolism too dense for the average public to understand. For instance, Knowledge and Ignorance are shown battling for Helen Keller’s mind and Helen as the Mother of Sorrows bestows the Touch of Hope on hundreds of blind and crippled extras, and astride a white horse in medieval costume a la Joan of Arc she delivers she leads mankind to liberty and freedom. Producers even tried to spice up the production by writing in a fantasy boyfriend for Helen and showing the couple embracing while clad in scanty tunics on the Isle of Circe. When Helen and Annie Sullivan saw the finished production, each minute of which was supposedly like an hour, they asked for massive revisions, but the whole thing turned out to be unsalvageable. When the movie was premiered in 1919 the reviews were charitable and kind, praising Helen Keller, her life, and her “message to the world,” but had the topic not been such a sensitive one, one senses the reviews would have been scathing.

Another chapter covers the brief foray into films made by the greatest opera star of his day, Enrico Caruso. His records sold millions and movie producers, with their eyes solely on the profits, though the public would flock to see the man behind that glorious voice, even if they could not actually hear it. But they were wrong. After two films Caruso called it a day and went back to the stage where he often grossed as much as $10,000 for each performance until his death in 1921. Thirty years later, his life was later given the film treatment in a typical Hollywood bio-pic that omitted anything unflattering or unsavory, and didn’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story, starring my favorite singer Mario Lanza as THE GREAT CARUSO.

Another opera star who tried to replicate her success on the silver screen was Mary Garden, a beautiful blonde soprano most famous for her portrayal of THAIS, which was chosen as her debut film. But no one dared tell the prima donna to tone down the sweeping theatrical gestures and in the sections where the diva burst into glorious song on stage, in the film version awkward silence reigned while Mary stood still as a statue. THAIS was one of the biggest box office failures of 1917. Mary Garden gamely tried again with a World War I love story entitled THE SPLENDID SINNER, hoping to lure the public into theatres with the promise of seeing the diva in modern dress and sporting a $175,000 string of pearls given to her by an admirer. The scene at the end where she is shot at sunrise was deemed by many critics to be the best part. After that, Mary turned her back on the movies and returned to the operatic stage. The grand diva continued to enjoy success on the stage, often in revivals of her immortal THAIS, she later penned her memoirs, and died at the ripe old age of 92.

The famous baseball player Babe Ruth also hoped to score a homerun in films, most revolving around the “smalltown boy makes good” theme, where he is discovered and goes on to achieve fame and fortune as the golden boy of baseball, but they only proved that he was a better ball player than he was an actor.

Anna Pavlova, the great Russian prima ballerina, also succumbed to the lure of the silver screen and its seductive promise of immortality, her dancing captured on film, in moving images not just stills, forevermore. But the film technology of 1915 was against her, and the flickering, jerky nature of the film made dancing appear oddly out of step. Pavlova demanded perfection, and the movies could not give it to her. She appeared in only one film, THE DUMB GIRL OF PORTICI, and when it met with a lukewarm response from the viewing public, returned to the stage with no desire to give a repeat performance for the movie cameras.

Escape artist and magician Harry Houdini made several attempts to replicate his on stage stardom on the screen, but his act was better live, in person, than in the form of a few thrilling stunts and escapes inserted in an otherwise mediocre and plodding plot. A dvd box set of all his surviving film appearances called HOUDINI THE MOVIE STAR was recently released by Kino so, unlike with most of those featured in this book whose attempts at stardom are either lost or not readily available, those interested can easily judge for themselves if the Great Houdini had what it takes to achieve movie stardom had he not died suddenly on Halloween in 1926.

And Maude Adams, one of the first child stars to successfully make the transition to adult roles. She grew too old trying to bring her beloved PETER PAN, the role she was handpicked to play by its creator, James M. Barrie, to the screen. Instead, she lived to see it go to another, younger actress, Betty Bronson, and become a smash hit and beloved classic movie, the 1920s equivalent of THE WIZARD OF OZ. If Maude was bitter about it, we’ll never know; she was always a private person. She never did appear before the movie cameras, though she made a screen test in 1938 for the role of Miss Fortune in THE YOUNG IN HEART, but decided against pursuing a film career, and instead retired to a quiet, private life. She never married and died at the age of 80 in 1953. Long believed lost, a beautiful print of the 1924 version of PETER PAN, the movie Maude Adams longed to make, was discovered a few years ago and is now available on dvd through Kino Home Video; many, myself included, consider it superior to all the sound versions of this beloved story of the boy who never grew up.

The book also includes chapters on actor Otis Skinner who made a career out of KISMIT; Sarah Bernhardt’s great rival, Eleonora Duse; and Mary Pickford’s little sister Lottie, who lacked the drive and ambition and could never quite come out from under Mary’s iconic shadow.

This was a fascinating book to read, and I recommend it for both silent film and theatrical and movie history fans who want something fresh that is not the same old story.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester

In the summer of 1858 in the garden behind Christ Church College in Oxford a shy, stammering, half-deaf mathematics don named Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, whom posterity would remember as beloved children’s book author Lewis Carroll, photographed the dean’s six-year-old daughter, Alice, costumed as a beggarmaid, in bare feet and rags with her hand out as though hoping some passerby will come along and drop some pennies in her cupped palm. There is just something about that picture--a rather disturbing, strikingly mature, knowing look in young Alice Liddell’s eyes that still captivates and unsettles viewers. Some even note an exposed nipple to further fuel debate about whether or not Lewis Carroll harbored pedophiliac tendencies.

This brief book is a combination biography of Lewis Carroll, history of photography and cameras, an analysis of the Beggarmaid photo and its inspirations, his friendship with Alice, and the beloved children’s classic that made her immortal. Even after she grew up, married, and had children of her own, even when she was an old gray-haired lady Alice would always be haunted by the ghost of her own childhood self.

This is a very straightforward, down-to-earth book not given to wild flights of fantasy or lurid speculation about its subjects. Though it contains only 100 pages of text, it crams a lot between the covers, and is a great start for anyone curious about the relationship between the author and his child-muse but uncertain how deeply they want to delve into the story.