Sunday, February 26, 2012

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton

The day Aaron Maciver’s beautiful, glamorous young bride, Madeline went for a bicycle ride and crashed into a stone wall changed both their lives forever. The woman who came back to him had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old child. This was 1937 and little could be done for catastrophic brain injuries. Instead of putting Madeline away in an institution, Aaron did his best to make her life comfortable, giving her a little girl’s dream room with a frilly canopied bed and vanity table and shelves of toys, dolls, and paint sets. At the recommendation of doctors, “to make Mrs. Maciver’s life easier” Madeline was also given a hysterectomy. And when Aaron fell in love with Julia Beeson, the nurse who became one of Madeline’s in-home caregivers, Aaron quietly obtained a divorce and the newlywed couple decided on a unique domestic arrangement—they would keep Madeline and “raise” her alongside the children they would have.

Told from the viewpoint of the couple’s son, Buddy, written as a memoir at the start of the 21st century when he is a middle-aged man with a wife and grown children of his own, this novel reminisces about what life was like growing up with Madeline, a perpetual child trapped inside a woman’s aging body. Sometimes she was as docile as a lamb, playing games with the neighborhood children. She spent hours painstakingly putting together her outfits; not even a catastrophic brain injury could diminish Madeline’s love of fashion, she retained her sense of style, poured over fashion magazines, and with her silky blonde hair people described her as “a real Princess Grace”). And at other times she was a true enfant terrible, biting and raging. Buddy’s narrative also chronicles Madeline’s romance with Mikey O’Day, whose brain was like her own rendered childlike, in his case by a bout of meningitis when he was a baby. Mikey is a colorful character who in summer performs three nights a week singing popular songs at the Dari-Dip, the local ice cream shop, and waking the neighborhood up at the crack of dawn playing his drum set, and woos Madeline by coming over to her house to play his records and taking her along with him on his weekly jaunts to the local record shop.

I enjoyed this book, amongst the many novels about families, rather they be dysfunctional, disintegrating, or caught up in some sort of crisis or drama, this one stood out as unusual; a portrait of a family doing their best to do the right thing and making lemonade from the lemons life gave them. It also reminded me of one of my favorite movies and short stories, The Light From The Piazza, which was indeed one of the author’s inspirations, to which she pays homage by describing Madeline’s trip to Italy before her accident and her encounter with a handsome young man on a motorcycle, and another visit in Madeline’s twilight years to attend a family wedding. If you’re tired of the typical novels written about families, I recommend you give this one a try.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Boy In The Box The Unsolved Case of America's Unknown Child by David Stout

One of the saddest stories in all the unsolved mysteries of the world is that of The Boy In The Box, America's Unknown Child. On February 25, 1957 the bruised and battered blanket-wrapped nude body of a malnourished thirty pound little boy, aged somewhere between four and six years old, was found stuffed in a cardboard box with a J.C. Penney's label, thrown away in the rubbish-strewn woods of Fox Chase, Philadelphia. Ever since that day, investigators, both official and armchair criminologists, have been trying to give justice and a name to this child. Some of the original detectives assigned to the case, like Rem Bristow, of the medical examiner's office, never gave up and spent most of their adult lives relentlessly pursuing every clue no matter how far-fetched or unlikely.

This is a case where no one can say more should have been done. This unknown child has touched people's hearts from the start and not a stone has been left unturned to try to solve this mystery. There were door-to-door searches, hospital birth records were meticulously combed through trying to match the boy's footprints with those taken of newborns, schools, both public and private, for healthy children as well as the mentally challenged, were searched and all pupils accounted for, as well as children placed in foster homes, orphanages, and other institutions by the welfare system, immigration records were also searched, and detectives followed up leads about families who led a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place in search of work. Detectives even talked to children playing in schoolyards and playgrounds to ask if any of their little playmates were missing. There were marks on the boy's body indicative of intravenous insertions or, since some were in the groin area, a hernia operation is also a possibility, and a diagnostic dye had been injected into one of his eyes, so doctors and nurses were questioned in the hope that someone would remember this little boy. There was a massive media campaign to identify him, posters and flyers were everywhere, flyers were even mailed out with gas and electric bills, the child's corpse was even dressed up in typical schoolboy clothes donated by one of the detective's and photographed sitting upright in the hope that this would jog someone's memory. A deathmask was even made using a new dental plastic instead of the standard plaster of Paris so that even after the child was buried they would still have a three-dimensional likeness of his face. Since the child's hair was hacked off very crudely, either just before or after death as strands of it still adhered to his naked body, some have even speculated that the reason he remains unidentified is that, for whatever reason, he was raised as a girl, and cutting off his hair was a deliberate act to make identification more difficult so sketches of what he might have looked like as a girl were made, albeit later in the case instead of near the start. The remains were even exhumed in 1998 and DNA extracted. All to no avail. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.

This is the first book to fully chronicle the mystery, and it is a heartbreaking and riveting read I recommend to anyone interested in true crime and unsolved mysteries.

There is also a website dedicated to this case, though updates are infrequent as "time is the enemy" in a case like this where anyone who might have known this little boy's name is advancing in years and may even already be dead. This site is connected to investigators still dedicated to solving this case and any information can be submitted to them there.

The image at the top of this post is the original poster showing the child's face as well as a man's blue corduroy cap that was found at the scene, which may be a clue or may have nothing at all to do with it; it could have blown off a passing motorist's head or been lost when someone was dumping junk as that area of the woods was a popular dumping ground. I apologize if anyone finds my including this image offensive, I can well understand, it hurts my heart every time I see this child's battered face, but due to the nature of this case, I felt compelled to include it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Doctor And The Diva by Adrienne McDonnell

Young Dr. Ravell is a rising star in early 20th century obstetrics, famous for helping young couples conceive. He is flattered when a family of prominent Boston doctors seeks his aid for one of their own—beautiful Erika von Kessler, an opera singer who yearns for a child. She and her husband have tried everything to no avail. Her husband Peter has dragged her to every doctor and rejected her to every procedure available, sparing her no discomfort or humiliation in his quest to father a child of his own. Adoption or artificial insemination with sperm from a donor is out of the question as far as he in his masculine pride is concerned. And Erika’s family fears the despondent Erika will take her own life if she cannot become pregnant.

Dr. Ravell secretly subjects Peter’s sperm to microscopic analysis and discovers that he is sterile. Also concerned for Erika, and what she may be planning to do, he decides to implant her with his own sperm instead of Peter’s.

But Erika is not planning to kill herself, instead she is planning to ditch her life as a high society wife and go to Italy—the tickets on a White Star Line ocean liner have already been bought—and pursue her dream of becoming a famous opera singer.

A few days before she is set to sail, Erika discovers that she is pregnant. Though she has wanted this for years, she is also dismayed to have to relinquish her dream of a singing career. And when her child is born dead, she blames herself, knowing she harbored such thoughts.

When Dr. Ravell’s career is ruined by a malicious woman and gossip of his amorous escapades becomes public knowledge, he leaves Boston to work on a friend’s coconut plantation in Trinidad. But Peter will not let go, unaware of the doctor’s deception, of the substitution of sperm, he is determined to try again, and with Erika in tow, following Dr. Ravell to Trinidad. There Erika and Dr. Ravell begin an affair which will result in a son, Quentin, Peter will think is his own.

But Erika’s dream of becoming a star in the world of opera will not die. Motherhood, she finds, is not enough. She loves her son, but she finds her daily life tedious and chafing. She tries to convince Peter to agree to a plan that will allow her to pursue her dream, but he refuses, Her place is with her husband and son in Boston and he threatens her with divorce and that he will take full custody of Quentin.

Time is not on Erika’s side, and she knows it, her soaring soprano voice will have lost its power if she waits until her son is grown. It’s now or never.

And here I will bring the curtain down; I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. And I found it very interesting to learn about the fertility treatments that lingering veils of Victorian prudery and propriety still endeavored to conceal into the 20th century as if there were some kind of shame attached to infertility. I also applaud the way the author handled this story, it would have been all too easy to make this a typical romance, with glitz and glamour and fame and fortune like an old Hollywood musical where the music soars and all ends happily before “The End” appears upon the screen, but she did not give in to that temptation; Erika’s struggles with her marriage and her pursuit of a singing career are very realistically rendered.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why She Married Him by Myriam Chapman

Belle Epoque Paris, June 1912, newly married Nina, still wearing her blue satin wedding suit and feathered hat, sits by the window in the apartment she will share with her new husband, Abraham Podselver wondering how her life will change now that she is a wife. Abraham is a rough, gruff, Russian revolutionary, a man who disdains the social niceties and conventions, and walks with a limp, a permanent reminder of an injury suffered in prison when he was jailed for crimes against the Tsar. Everyone wonders why Nina, a refined and fashionably dressed young woman who has been flirting with socialism for years and even taken language and business classes to better herself, chose him; her friends and family confidently assert “he’s not good enough for you.”

This novel, inspired by the life of the author’s Russian grandmother, goes back in time, to examine Nina’s life and try to answer that question. We see Nina embracing the socialist cause and distributing leaflets to urge the workers of the world to unite, and sit with her and her family in hiding as they face the horrors of the pogroms that lead them to flee first to Switzerland and then to Paris. We watch them struggle to rebuild their lives, and see Nina fall in love for the first time with a handsome young anarchist. If you are looking for a good love story, this isn’t it, he treats her to fried potatoes, they get a little tipsy on beer, and go back to his room for some kissing, then he leaves her for New York, promising they will meet again, but they never do unless the author has a sequel in mind. Nina opts to stay in Paris, where life is hard but good, rather than leave her parents, who are unwilling to uproot themselves and move again, even further away, to America. Thus the stage is set for Alexander’s entrance, when he spies the fashionably dressed Nina at a socialist lecture and is instantly smitten.

Though a well-written and interesting story, one is left with the sad feeling that, in the end, Nina settled, being a married woman gives her some freedoms she could not otherwise enjoy as a single woman, a daughter living in her parents’ house, but it comes with its own set of rules and restrictions and expectations. We all make bargains and compromises in our lives and weigh our options. Alexander, for all his uncouth ways and disdain for propriety, loves Nina, he even leaves a train during a stop, hobbling a considerable distance on his bad leg through crowds to buy her a special present. Is it enough? Which is greater, what she already has, or what is missing? Is the elusive more worthwhile than the tangible? That the reader is left to ponder.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Queen's Pleasure Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour

I will be having my first virtual book tour later this year to promote my fourth novel, THE QUEEN'S PLEASURE (A COURT AFFAIR). Please join me as I travels the blogosphere with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours from May 28th - June 26th. There will be reviews, author interviews and giveaways, hosted by some really fabulous blogs!

I will post more details about the tour nearer the start date.

Thank you to all the bloggers who have signed up to participate and to Amy from Passages to the Past and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for organizing it all and giving me more time to write.

I'm going into hiberation mode for the next few months to finish my current novel, though book reviews will continue to appear on this blog and I will post updates about THE QUEEN'S PLEASURE (A COURT AFFAIR) whenever I have any news, and there will be a giveaway for an Advance Reader Copy in a few weeks when I receive them from the publisher.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Bride's House by Sandra Dallas

Like a big lacy white wedding cake, the Bride’s House regally presides over the rugged mining town of Georgetown, Colorado, housing three generations of women, their hopes, their dreams, secrets, and lies.

First there is Nealie Bent, a thin, freckled, red-head, who comes to Georgetown at seventeen with only two dresses and her dreams. She takes work as a servant in Mrs. Travers’ boarding house. She soon has two suitors—rough and gruff miner Charlie Dumas, and the handsome, elegant grandson of the owner of the Rose of Shannon Mine, Will Spaulding. Nealie doesn’t know that all that glitters isn’t gold, and soon falls for the fool’s gold Will Spaudling offers and finds herself seduced and pregnant by a man who turns out to be married; a fact he conventily forgot to mention.

Though he at first shuns her as damaged goods, Charlie can’t escape the truth, that he truly loves Nealie. On their wedding day when he takes her home to the Bride’s House instead of his humble miner’s cabin Nealie discovers what no one knew, the rough miner is actually a millionaire, and he has bought the Bride’s House for the woman he loves and goes on to treat her to a trip to Denver for a lavish shopping spree to furnish it. When people make fun of Nealie’s ostentatious taste—she likes red—Charlie stands up for her. All he asks is that Nealie forget about Will Spaulding, never see him again, raise her baby as though Charlie were the father, and that she try to love him. Nealie agrees. But her time in the Bride’s House is short; she dies giving birth to her daughter Pearl.

After Nealie dies Charlie refuses to change a thing and Pearl grows up in a house that is a veritable shrine to the mother she never knew. He refuses to let Pearl go, to let her live her own life, and even denies her the chance to go to college. In 1912 when she meets Frank Curry she is a thirty-year-old spinster and her father has already foiled the dubious intentions of several fortune hunters who sought the rather plain heiress’s hand. But Frank Curry just may be different. Or maybe not. When Charlie offers him $50,000 he disappears from Pearl’s life…until 1929 when the Dumas fortune has been lost and Charlie and Pearl struggle to keep up a modest existence.

The third young woman to live in and love the Bride’s House is Susan, Pearl’s miracle baby, born when she was fifty. By now it is 1950 and though the nonagenarian Charlie continues to putter around the Bride’s House it has now become mostly a summer home where Susan can run barefoot and free and forget all about Chicago high society, deportment, and dancing classes. She truly loves the big white house and longs to be the first bride to be married there in a white silk gown and the man she envisions as the groom by her side is her childhood chum Joe Bullock. But while away attending college in Denver she falls under the spell of Peter Fanshaw, an slightly older man serving in the Air Force. When Joe continues to perplex her with mixed signals, Susan tries to use Peter to make him jealous, but her plan backfires when Peter forces himself upon her and history seems poised to repeat it self.

How will it all work out? If you follow this blog you know I’m not about to tell and spoil it for you.

I really enjoyed this novel. The first part reminded me of one of my favorite movies, the big splashy MGM musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and in the second part I glimpsed shades of a favorite novel, Henry James’ Washington Square. Ms. Dallas’ novels usually move at a good pace and this is one I would especially recommend for those who like historical novels that are not too dense and deep, the big, heavy door-stop sized type crammed full of facts and dozens of characters you have to keep track of. Her novels are more personal and peopled with captivating characters the reader can feel for or even identify with caught up in interesting situations. Of the handful I have read by her over the years, I think this is my favorite.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kissing Sherlock Holmes by T.D. McKinney and Terry Wylis

I will say upfront that what you get out of this book, in terms of enjoyment, will depend greatly on your expectations. If you read it tongue-in-cheek and don't take it too seriously it can be quite amusing. If you're expecting a good, engrossing mystery you can sink your teeth into, or if you're a Sherlockian who prefers pastiches that adhere more closely to the original tales, honesty compels me to say look elsewhere, the sex scenes go on for so long you might find yourself wanting to scream at Sherlock and Dr. Watson "You've got a bloody case to solve, will you just get on with it please?" But if your desire is to see Sherlock Holmes and his devoted Watson on more passionate terms, and in vivid erotic detail, this book just may be precisely your cup of tea. Now that that's been said, let's get on to the plot.

The book opens in the spring of 1896. Holmes telegraphs Watson to join him a the country estate of the Viscount of Teddington in Surrey where he has gone to ferret out a traitor who has been selling state secrets abroad. It is also the site for Holmes' upcoming nuptials, he is engaged to the daughter of the house, a beautiful, headstrong, young lady with a fire and ice personality, the honorable Miss Winnifred Farnham, and he wants Watson to be his best man.

Fully aware of his friend's well-established misogyny, Watson is amazed, and even more so when Holmes asks "My dear Watson, how does one go about kissing a woman?" When it comes to lovemaking, the great detective's knowledge is woefully lacking. Watson precedes to give Holmes a
kissing lesson, and since a tree or a cow really won't do as a substitute, he locks lips with Sherlock, and voila both discover their hidden passion and how much in love with each other they are. This sexual awakening goes on for pages and pages. Though Watson does suffer a few twinges of guilt about jeopardizing their friendship by becoming lovers and worries that if Holmes forsakes marriage he will be depriving him of the consolation of children, but these qualms aren't serious enough to deter him from acting on his newfound passion. As for Holmes, he finds Watson more exciting and addictive than cocaine.

Of course Holmes admits his engagement to Winnie is all a charade, and assures Watson, "I shall simply pretend I'm kissing you when I am with her."

As the book progresses the mystery comes more into focus. Winnie's brother, Lord Stepney, Holmes' original suspect, turns out not to be dealing in state secrets after all, only concealing a secret career as a popular pornographer who writes for both hetero and homo sexual audiences, and
the young man's Aunt Lucy becomes enamored of Watson in an always genteely expressed manner. And there are two attempts on Watson's life that make Sherlock even more determined to solve the case. And some people think the Victorian era was boring!

If you've been following this blog, then you know I won't give the ending, and the culprit's identity, away. I found this book fun at times, with likeable and sometimes intriguing characters, and tedious and predictable at others. If you do decide to give it a try, I highly recommend that you do not picture Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce during the love scenes, imagining these two locked in a passionate embrace, calling each other "darling" made me laugh so hard I hit my head on the wall. Ouch!

My Dearest Holmes by Rohase Piercy

When this slim little volume was first published some years ago it was quite the scandal, greeted with outrage by many Sherlock Holmes aficionados. No doubt many imagined Holmes and Watson entwined in torrid embraces within its pages, but that is not the case, in fact, it is actually quite tame, devoid of sex scenes, this is not at all an erotic book so anyone expecting actual sex scenes or a lifting of the veil of Victorian homosexuality, may be disappointed. It is, on the contrary, very true to the Victorian style and sensibilities of the original stories despite containing subject matter and relationships that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have shied away from in his day. Even the little details are there like the tobacco in the Persian slipper, Holmes’ mouse-colored dressing gown, and the cocaine bottle and the morocco case for the syringe.

The book begins with an explanation that these tales have been withheld from publication until 100 years after the deaths of both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson due to their sensitive nature.

The first story, set in 1887, A DISCREET INVESTIAGE, describes the Case of the Queen Bee. While Dr. Watson grapples with his tender feelings for Sherlock Holmes, the hopelessness of his infatuation with this man who is more like an automaton than a human being, worrying that he will somehow betray himself, and how Holmes will react, as well as the social repercussions at a time when homosexuality was punishable with prison and hard labor. “What was I to do? I was in love with the man. My double life, my nocturnal visits to the clubs and meeting places where I was accustomed to seek relief, had become odious and degrading to me.” After a frantic Miss D’Arcy comes to Holmes after Miss Kirkpatrick, her “companion” (it is inferred that the two ladies are in fact lesbian lovers as they live together on “intimate terms”), disappears after receiving a telegram. She relates a curious tale of secrecy and burned letters. As the tale unfolds it becomes clear that they are dealing with a female blackmailer known only as “The Queen Bee.” And poor Watson, to compound his worries, discovers that he has confided his true and tender feelings to the worst possible person—the blackmailer they are seeking.

The second story THE FINAL PROBLEM, set in 1891, endeavors to fill in some of the gaps in THE ADVENTURE OF THE FINAL PROBLEM and THE ADVENTURE OF THE EMPTY HOUSE which related Holmes’ death and resurrection. By this time Watson, knowing that he and Holmes can never be more than they already are, and that he cannot accept a life of celibacy, or Holmes opinion that Watson is “undisciplined” when he seeks relief and acts upon his carnal urges, has moved out, opened a private practice, and entered into a marriage of convenience with an amiable lesbian named Mary, whom he met during the investigation published as THE SIGN OF FOUR. They are a companionable, friendly couple who provide cover and respectability for each other while leading separate sex lives. Watson, it is delicately explained, indulges in occasional dalliances with men of like persuasion. Mary is off visiting a female friend, her former employer, in the country when Holmes, seeming rather paranoid and on edge, arrives and whisks Watson off to the Continent, explaining that his nemesis, “The Napoleon of Crime,” Professor Moriarty has threatened to reveal some rather indiscreet information about Dr. Watson and the company he keeps. A solider, whose company Watson recently enjoyed, was most likely one of Moriarty’s informants. After Holmes and Moriarty go over the falls at Reichenbach, Watson struggles on, returning to London and trying to hold himself together as grief tears him apart, enduring a bout of brain fever and the loss of his wife. Two and a half years pass, and then Watson receives a mysterious summons to a hotel in Paris. The old friends are tenderly—and chastely—reunited, and though we know they will go on together and resume their old life at 221B Baker Street, it is unclear under what terms—if they will soldier on maintaining a proper Victorian reserve or if they will resume their friendship on much more intimate terms.

This was an interesting book to read, although I am what I would consider a casual Sherlock Holmes fan, I wasn’t shocked by the premise of the book, merely curious about how the author would handle it; I didn’t really have any expectations and, to be honest, had always thought of Holmes as being asexual, I had never really given much thought to whether he ever had a sex life. I thought the author did an admirable job of capturing the flavor of the original stories, better than some Holmes pastiches I have read over the years, and the delicate touch and restraint he employed felt true to the time period, In conclusion, despite the dangling ending, or new beginning, with blanks the reader or perhaps the author if he ever chooses to write a sequel must fill in, I can genuinely say I enjoyed reading this book.