Monday, July 27, 2015

Princes Gate by Mark Ellis

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Publicist
Read: July 15, 2015

Princes Gate is the first in a new series of crime thrillers that involve DCI Frank Merlin. These atmospheric books are set in wartime London mixing historical and fictional characters and featuring a charismatic and intriguing half-Spanish detective. When a brilliant emigre scientist is killed by a hit and run driver and a young woman's body is washed up in the Thames, Merlin and his team must investigate. The woman is an employee of the American Embassy, whose Ambassador at this time is Joseph Kennedy. DCI Merlin's investigation of diplomats at the Embassy ruffles feathers at the Foreign Office - the American Ambassador is a well-known supporter of appeasement and many powerful and influential Britons favour the pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler. The death of another Embassy employee leads Merlin into some of the seedier quarters of wartime London where a corrupt night-club owner, various high-flying diplomats and the Ambassador himself appear to be linked to the events surrounding the deaths. Merlin has to pursue his detective work under the interfering supervision of an Assistant Metropolitan Commissioner who is fearful about the impact of Merlin's investigations on Anglo-American relations at a time when America represents to many Britain's only hope of salvation. Capturing the atmosphere of Britain in 1940 during the 'phoney war' when, although war rages on the Continent, life continues relatively peacefully in Britain, Princes Gate is an enthralling detective novel.

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Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
It didn’t take much to rouse my interest in Mark Ellis’ Princes Gate. A mystery set in wartime London involving Joseph Kennedy, the Foreign Office and potential peace settlements with Hitler sounded absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t wait to get started. Looking back, I can’t say that enthusiasm misplaced as the book has a lot of wonderful things going for it, but I’m not sure it’s quite the enthralling thriller its jacket styles it to be.

Though noticeably similar to Michael Kitchen’s Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, I found Ellis’ Frank Merlin an interesting protagonist. His mixed heritage and world views made a refreshing change of pace and I liked the balance Ellis struck between his professional responsibilities and personal history. 

Ellis provides a well-researched portrait of politics during the Phoney War and I liked how he used the American Ambassador’s reputation to his advantage in the context of the story. The tone and style of the narrative is very English and while the pacing left much to be desired, I found the mystery itself quite satisfying.

Ideally I have liked more dramatic tension, more movement and a stronger supporting cast, but I’m not disappointed with the time I spent on this piece and would easily recommend it to fans of period mysteries.  

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He didn’t give a damn for the defeatist Kennedy, or indeed for that stuffed-shirt Chamberlain, whom Hitler had comprehensively hoodwinked. Nothing should stand in the way of a murder investigation, however lowly the victim. No doubt Joan’s fate would seem unimportant in the greater scheme of things whenever the Luftwaffe got round to bombing London, but that was nothing to him. It was his job to seek out the truth behind her death, regardless.
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Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Flying Affair by Carla Stewart

Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 7, 2015

Daredevil Mittie Humphreys developed her taste for adventure on horseback, on her family's prosperous Kentucky horse farm. But her love of horses is surpassed by her passion for the thrill of the skies, especially since the dashing pilot, Ames, first took her up in his plane. When handsome British aviator Bobby York offers her flying lessons, he is equally surprised—and beguiled—by Mittie's grit, determination, and talent. Soon, Mittie is competing in cross-country air races, barnstorming, and wing-walking. But when Calista "Peach" Gilson, a charming Southern belle, becomes her rival in both aviation and in love, Mittie must learn to navigate her heart as well as the skies.

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My Netgalley account is flooded with unread titles which annoys me to no end. In an attempt to address the situation, I challenged myself to buckle down and tackle the backlog one story at a time. In light of that goal, I fired up my kindle, picked a book at random, and began reading. Unfortunately the first book I picked was Carla Stewart’s A Flying Affair and the experience was less than satisfactory. 

A companion piece to The Hatmaker’s Heart, I found the novel suffered many of the structural issues I noted in its predecessor. The narrative was dull and Stewart’s heroine was something of a Mary Sue. There is little to no atmospheric detail in the narrative, the plot was predictable and the characters mundane. The author’s interest in fashion is once again evident, but it made less sense this time around as Mittie is not part of the fashion industry.  

I took further issue with how little of the novel was dedicated to aviation. Mittie’s emersion in the field took ages to get off the ground, but it also competed with her and passion for horses. There was simply too much going on in Mittie’s world and I felt Stewart’s inability to pare down created a disjointed and incohesive patchwork of plot. To make matters worse, the author’s illustration of the aviation as a profession lacked authenticity. I hadn’t liked the characters in The Beauty Chorus, but Brown’s descriptions of the cockpit, the mechanics of and mental focus required to fly left Stewart in the dust. 

Long story short, A Flying Affair was a total and complete bust. On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have attempted it, but I now know for certain that Stewart and I are not a good fit and will make a point of avoiding her work in the future. 

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“Serendipity that day was meeting you and falling in love with flying all in one afternoon.”
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 12, 2015

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, Next to Love follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends lose their innocence, struggle to raise their children, and find meaning and love in unexpected places. And as they change, so does America—from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And yet Babe, Millie, and Grace remain bonded by their past, even as their children grow up and away and a new society rises from the ashes of the war. Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Next to Love depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.

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Into the Jaws of Death - U.S. Troops wading
through water and Nazi gunfire
Ellen Feldman's Next to Love was a recommended read. Heather, the voice behind The Maiden's Court, suggested it at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver and I tracked down a copy soon after returning home. I wasn't at all familiar with it, but her rending of the plot had me sold sight unseen. 

She mentioned the trials of life on the home front, but was very clear that the story focused on post-war America as well. She mentioned that one of the heroines struggled to understand her husband’s PTSD and that another was defined by her husband’s death. She went on, but my mind was already racing. I flashed on that scene in A League of Their Own, the one in the locker room where the Peaches apprehensively watch Jimmy Dugan walk the telegram down the line. The audience breathes a sigh of relief for Dottie Hinson, but what happened to Betty Horn? How did she weather the years without George? It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but I couldn't argue the potential in the story of a war widow.  

At this point you’re probably wondering if the book lived up to Heather’s praise and/or my imaginings and I’m happy to report, it did. I think Babe, Millie and Grace make very interesting protagonists and I liked watching their lives and personalities change with each passing year. I also liked style and tone of Feldman’s writing and found it very easy to slip into the world she created within these pages. 

My only complaint is the structure of post-war chapters. I didn’t like the sudden shifts to narrators in the supporting cast. Sporadic intervals with Naomi, Claude, King, Jack, Al, Mac and Amy felt awkward in the context of the story and made it difficult to remain focused on the central trio. The erratic timeline caused further confusion and often forced me to stop and rearrange events in my head to make sense of the order in which they took place. I liked how Feldman used multiple perspectives to explore various themes, but I can'd help feeling her execution imprudent and that the latter chapters of the novel suffered as a result.

Obviously I'd have liked a stronger ending, but I can’t say I felt the time I spent with Next to Love wasted. The presentation was disappointing, but I greatly enjoyed the plot and look forward to reading Feldman again somewhere down the road. 

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“The official line is that, after the war, women couldn't wait to leave the offices and assembly lines and government agencies. But the real story was that the economy couldn't have men coming home without women going home, not unless it wanted a lot of unemployed vets. So the problem became unemployed women. "How you gonna keep us down on the farm after we've seen the world,"' she ad-libs to the old World War I tune. 'Enter the women's magazines, and cookbook publishers, and all these advertising agencies carrying on about the scourge of germs in the toilet bowl, and scuffs on the kitchen floor, and, my favorite, house B.O. Enter chicken hash that takes two and a half hours to prepare. I can just hear them sitting around the conference tables. 'That'll keep the gals out of trouble.”
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Monday, July 13, 2015

The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 20, 2015

A young woman comes to Hollywood to escape her past. She finds work in a vintage clothing store that sells clothes used in the movies. One day she discovers a way to transfer human character through these vintage clothes, and she uses this ability to transform from a lonely, insecure young woman to a glamorous heartbreaker. But she also discovers that with the good comes the bad as character flaws are transferred too. She begins to worry: what if one of the vintage clothes she has sold to some unsuspecting customer had been previously worn by a deeply troubled soul? One day her fears become crystallized—intrigued by a man who comes asking about a beautiful scarlet dress she has recently sold, she looks into its history and discovers a secret that terrifies her. So begins a quest to find the scarlet dress complicated by a budding romance and the threads of her past, which intervene like trip wires. Emotions run high, and in the background the quickening drumbeat of the race to find the scarlet dress, potent as a loose, loaded weapon.

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Studio publicity portrait for film Niagara (1953).
The premise of Praveen Asthana’s The Woman in the Movie Star Dress looked vaguely interesting when I skimmed the description, but my main interest in the book was that it wasn’t historic fiction. I’d just come off a heavy hitting period piece and I was looking for a break. I mean no offense, but I didn’t expect much of this piece and was entirely unprepared when it captured my imagination hook, line, and sinker. 

I’m a voracious reader, but when I don’t have my nose in a book, I greatly enjoy movies which probably explains my enthusiasm for the myriad of motion picture references in The Woman in the Movie Star Dress. The title garment is the striking red number worn by Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, but the story also refers films such as When Harry Met Sally, Roman Holiday, Before Sunset, Witness for the Prosecution, Alien, Silence of the Lambs, Double Indemnity, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Casablanca. There are others, but what I’m getting at is how Asthana’s allusions draw readers into the narrative by playing on the emotional connections we make to films and those who star in them. It’s an interesting tactic, but it works beautifully beginning to end. 

Another thing I loved about this book is how deliciously atmospheric it felt. I reveled in the authenticity of scenes at Griffith Park, onboard the Queen Mary and inside the chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. I grinned over the author’s illustration of the street performers that occupy the cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre and sympathized with Genevieve’s frustration with traffic on the five. It isn’t often that one sees their corner of the world through the eyes of a storyteller, but I can’t help feeling Asthana interpretation genuine. 

As to Genevieve, well, Asthana’s leading lady took some getting used to, but she grew on me as the story progressed and I felt quite connected to her when all was said and done. She’s an emotionally complex character and I liked that a lot. The same can be said of much of the cast now that I stop and think about it. Renzo and Todd are just as distinct and not just from one another. They’ve a unique quality about them, something real and relatable. 

Conceptually intriguing and dramatically dark, The Woman in the Movie Star Dressed proved an absolute pleasure. Brilliantly imaged and thoroughly addicting. 

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But what she was recalling was not the stars, but the characters they had played: Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ava Gardner in The Killers. What they all had in common was that they were femme fatales—seductive, manipulative, destroyers of hapless men. She needed to be that.
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Friday, July 10, 2015

The Hatmaker's Heart by Carla Stewart

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 18, 2015

For Nell Marchwold, bliss is seeing the transformation when someone gets a glimpse in the mirror while wearing one of her creations and feels beautiful. Nell has always strived to create hats that bring out a woman's best qualities. She knows she's fortunate to have landed a job as an apprentice designer at the prominent Oscar Fields Millinery in New York City. Yet when Nell's fresh designs begin to catch on, her boss holds her back from the limelight, claiming the stutter she's had since childhood reflects poorly on her and his salon. But it seems Nell's gift won't be hidden by Oscar's efforts. Soon an up-and-coming fashion designer is seeking her out as a partner of his 1922 collection. The publicity leads to an opportunity for Nell to make hats in London for a royal wedding. There, she sees her childhood friend, Quentin, and an unexpected spark kindles between them. But thanks to her success, Oscar is determined to keep her. As her heart tugs in two directions, Nell must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for her dream, and what her dream truly is.

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My interest in Carla Stewart’s The Hatmaker’s Heart began, as so many of my selections do, with the cover. I like the detail and think the direction of the lighting quite interesting. The contrast it creates over the figure and her worktable caused me to pause, and ultimately request a copy of the title for review. Unfortunately, Stewart’s content failed to do the same and looking back, I can’t help thinking the time I spent with the piece wasted.

Forgive my blunt assessment, but I found Stewart’s treatment of the material mundane and lifeless. Nell Marchwold didn’t interest me in the least and I had great difficulty rousing sympathy for her predicament. She is a naïve Mary Sue who I felt lacking in both depth and intrigue. I caught myself yawning at her expense on more than one occasion and grew increasingly annoyed with her as the story progressed. 

The author’s interest in period fashion is evident and appropriate considering the scope of the narrative, but I can’t help wishing she’d put the same effort into recreating the atmosphere of New York in the nineteen twenties. I could well envision the hemlines and shape of this or that ensemble, but such detail and texture were absence in Stewart’s portrayal of the city itself and I had difficulty envisioning the world as Nell saw it. 

Stubborn to a fault, I finished the novel not for pleasure so much as pride. Ridiculous as it sounds, I refused to be defeated by these three hundred and some odd pages of text. Many readers seem to have enjoyed Stewart’s brand of storytelling, but I am forced to admit it held little satisfaction for me.

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Nell held her breath. Yes, she’d wished for that, too, but an old nursery rhyme ran singsong through her head. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
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