The Casual Vacancy: A Review

Peyton Place filtered through Graham Green with a little bit of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.

the-casual-vacancy-new-cover-paperback-fullWhen Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm, his death sets off a chain reaction in the small English town, Pagford. First of all, it creates a vacancy (hence the book’s title) on the Council. Fairbrother had been a strong supporter of keeping a low income housing project as part of Pagford. He is opposed by a smug, controlling businessman Howard Mullison who wants to rid the village of the “undesirables.” The battle over the empty seat, and the haves and have-nots, soon engulfs everyone in Pagford, and slowly reveals the messy and not-so-pretty reality behind the pretty facade of the town. 

Very few of the characters of likeable, living almost completely in their small, self-centered world. Rowling slowly strips the town bare, revealing issues of abuse (domestic and child), marital infidelities, neglect, rape, racism, suicide, poverty and rampant hypocrisy. 

The book falls within the “black comedy” genre, with a dash of 21st century Dickensian storytelling. Rowling uses the third person omniscient viewpoint throughout the book, and though a tricky technique, pulls it off quite well. The scene during Howard Mullison’s birthday party is one of the highlights of the book, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, seamlessly moving from one character to another to give the reader a quick snapshot of the party, very much like a roving tracking shot in movie.

Give Rowling credit for breaking out of the Harry Potter world. She takes a bold move in shucking off the YA fantasy writer mantel and pulls it off quite well.  

4 palmettos     

Murphy’s Law: A Review

In this opening novel of the Molly Murphy series, the biggest mystery is … how long will the coincidences keep occurring in Molly’s favor?

murphy's lawMolly Murphy accidentally kills a man and flees Ireland at the spur of the moment. She manages to catch a boat to England where miraculously she is taken in by an Irish woman with two small children. They are leaving tomorrow for America to join her husband.  However, the woman is unable to board the ship due to suffering from TB so … she asks Molly to take her place, pretend to be her and take the children to America for her. (Coincidence #1).

She finds herself on a boat to America caring for two children she doesn’t know. Once she reaches New York a murder happens at Ellis Island and Molly soon becomes a suspect. Realizing the NYC police will not do it, she begins to investigate in order to clear her name, before she gets arrested, or worse, shipped back to Ireland.

Molly is a fun character, fiercely independent, sassy and headstrong.  I understand that this is meant to be a “cozy-styled” mystery, with a good bit of romantic flare, but the sheer number of times that Molly meets the exact person she needs to, or happens to hear the exact information she was looking for … got to be quite humorous. The fact that the book won an Agatha Award, although the mystery is less compelling than the rest of the story, makes me wonder about the standards of the award. 

All in all, though, Murphy’s Law is a fun book. I read it in two sittings.
3 palmettos

Birds of a Feather: A Review

London, 1930. Maisie Dobbs runs small private investigation agency a professional office in Fitzroy Square with an assistant, the happy-go-lucky Billy Beale. A former nurse in the Great War, she has proven herself as a psychologist and investigator. In the spring of 1930 Maisie Dobbs is hired to find a runaway heiress. When three of the heiress’s old friends are found dead, Maisie must to discover who would want to kill these seemingly respectable young women. She discovers that the answers lie in the agony of the Great War.

birds-of-a-feather-225This is the second book in the Maise Dobbs series and there is a dramatic drop-off.  We are constantly told (by other characters) how smart Maisie is, but she never comes across that way. She is cold, arrogant and often condescending. Her method of investigating using mysticism is too much New Ageish, feels silly and is ultimately unbelievable. 

There is also the aspect of withholding information from the reader. Maisie finds clues at each murder scene, but we never know what the clue is … she tucks it away. When it is revealed, (and you realize the major clue is related to the title) the effect ham-handed and amateurish. It’s a technique you would expect from a TV show, not a novel. Even Jessica Fletcher wouldn’t stoop so low. 

There also two subplots with Maisie’s father and her assistant Billy that seem to have been added into the story just to make it novel length.

The concept of this series is interesting, but this second book is w-e-a-k.

3 palmettos

The Short Drop: A Review

This is an impressive novel – even more so because it is the author’s debut. Matthew Fitzsimmons has written an engrossing political thriller that is filled with complexity but is easy to read and follow.

short dropThe novel opens on the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of Suzanne Lombard. Her disappearance became one of those national stories that was covered 24/7 for weeks and weeks by the media, mainly due to her father – who was a U.S. Senator at the time, currently the vice president and a presidential candidate. Ten years later, when a new photo of Suzanne appears Gibson Vaughn is approached by a private investigation team to assist in a new inquiry into Suzanne’s case.

Gibson was the son of Senator Lombard’s chief political advisor and best friend to Suzanne. However, after Suzanne’s disappearance, Gibson’s father commits suicide, and soon after, the teenage Gibson is arrested for hacking into the Senator’s private computer files, releasing damaging info. Due to his age, the judge gives Gibson an alternative –go to prison for 10 years, or join the marines, and upon completion of his military career, his criminal record will be expunged.  

Even though Gibson keeps his end of the deal, when released from military service, he discovers it difficult to find more than a low-level IT job and suspects V-P Lombard still holds a grudge. Then, Gibson is shown the new photo of Suzanne and asked to join the investigation …

To say any more about the plot would be unfair. The book practically gallops along, with fascinating twists and turns. The major characters are all fascinating and the mystery of a “what happened to Suzanne” is tantalizing. Go and read. You will not be sorry.

5 palmettos

The Irrepressible Daisy Breaux

In 1864 a young girl was born in Philadelphia. She was christened Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Donovan O’Donovan. Her friends called her “Daisy.” Her father, Cornelius McCarthy Moore Donavon O’Donavon, died when she was three, and her mother moved to New Orleans and married Gustave Breaux, a wealthy member of an aristocratic French family. 

daisy breaux - Copy

From New York Public Library – Public Domain. Author’s Collection.

Daisy was brought up in wealth and high southern society. She became known for her smart alecky sense of humor and attitude. When schoolmates would make fun of her – “Why do you have a French name and look so Irish?”- she usually responded with a slap in the face. However, once she started turning the heads of boys, Daisy became a popular girl. So much so that her mother sent Daisy off to the Georgetown Visitation convent school in Washington, D.C.

After her schooling was finished Daisy returned to New Orleans and fielded dozens of offers of marriage. In 1885 she married a wealthy Charleston banker, Andrew Simonds, who had lavished her with gifts like a diamond necklace and diamond pendant. She wore both at the altar.  

In Charleston, Daisy immediately turned heads. The couple was given a new house on the Battery as a wedding present and Daisy was told her to “decorate it anyway you wish.” She erected scaffolding in the drawing room and personally painted clouds with roses on the ceiling … all while receiving formal guests. Daisy was also fond of giving her guests unflattering nicknames, which she then proceeded to use in public. There was one grand old Charleston dame who always wore a tiara whom Daisy called “the Comb.” Another woman with unfortunately prominent teeth became known as “the Piano.” 

However, the most shocking event may have been when Daisy ordered her wedding present destroyed and a new mansion was built in its place at 4 South Battery.  It was an Italian Renaissance villa with four Corinthian columns along the front, designed by Frederick P. Dinkelberg who later became famous as the designer of the Flatiron Building in New York.    

In 1905, Simonds’s premature death left Daisy and their 5-year-old daughter, Margaret, in a precarious financial position. Ever the practical woman, Daisy turned her Charleston home into a luxury hotel. She named it after herself: the Villa Margherita — “margherita” being Italian for “daisy.”

south battery - villa margarite - postcard

The “Villa Margherita” (to the left) at 4 South Battery, Charleston, SC. Author’s Collection. 

Daisy invented the hotel’s motto out of fractured Latin: “Sic tibi pecunia non intrare non licet est.” Daisy translated it as: “If you ain’t got no money you needn’t come around.” She leased the property to Miss Ina Liese Dawson, who operated the Villa Margherita, serving wealthy northerners on their winter excursions to South Carolina for hunting expeditions, including Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell.

Daisy met her second husband, Barker Gummere Jr., when they both happened to be aboard the same yacht during a congressional junket to the Panama Canal. Gummere was a banker whose political influence earned him the nickname the “Kingmaker of New Jersey.” Their 1907 wedding took place in Charleston at the Villa. 

daisy portrait - from receipes of a

Daisy Gummere. Courtesy Library of Congress

Daisy then designed another house — a mansion called Rosedale on 57 acres that Gummere owned near Princeton. Again, tragedy cut the marriage short when he died of pneumonia in 1914. Daisy hired nine teachers and transformed Rosedale into a private academy for girls, enrolling her daughter as the first student.

Four years later, she married her third husband, Capt. Clarence Crittenden Calhoun. He was a Kentucky lawyer and Spanish-American War veteran with a lucrative law practice in Washington. Daisy became one of the most renowned hostesses in Washington, charming Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and future King of England.  

In the summer of 1920, the Calhouns traveled to San Francisco for the Democratic National Convention. The 19th Amendment was about to give women the right to vote, and politicians were eagerly courting this new constituency. Daisy noticed that female conventiongoers were being treated with an amazing amount of deference. Daisy recalled: 

While I had always believed in woman’s political power behind the throne, I came away from the Convention a thorough convert to her new place in the world, not only for equal rights in politics and business, but as a public speaker.

Back in Washington, D.C. Daisy had decided to harness what her husband had dubbed “dynamic woman power.” She founded the Woman’s National Foundation, and chief among its bylaws was the promise to educate:

women in their civil rights and duties as citizens, by giving and receiving instruction in history, civics and statescraft and all other branches helpful to good citizenship . . .

daisy calhoun loc

Daisy Calhoun. Courtesy Library of Congress

She raised funds from wealthy donors, in 1921 purchased 10 acres of prime land at Connecticut and Florida avenues NW for $80,000. Known as the Dean estate, the property included a mansion that became the foundation’s headquarters and was the setting for a hectic schedule of civics lessons, socials and inspirational pageants.

Daisy Calhoun, however, discovered that women had a less praiseworthy trait – jealous, sniping harpies. She wrote in her memoir, The Autobiography of a Chameleon:

Many women are so constituted that they cannot bear to see one of their sisters, who has been on a par with them, suddenly elevated to a position of authority over them.

Calhoun’s daughter, Margaret, eloped when she was about 18. Her secret suitor was a wealthy young Washingtonian named Arthur Drury, whom Calhoun described as “feckless and not suited to business.” The marriage didn’t last long, and Margaret later married Charles Waring, a Charleston lawyer. Margaret had children by both men.

daisy - recipes, philiosphy

Clarence Calhoun died in 1938 and Daisy Calhoun promised to publish a second memoir that recounted how she had been “prey for many of the scoundrels and racketeers that infest Washington.” She never did, though her cookbook, Favorite Recipes of a Famous Hostess, became popular.

She moved back to Charleston in 1948 and died there the following year at age 85. She was buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. 

Such was the life of Margaret Rose Anthony Julia Josephine Catherine Cornelia Donovan O’Donovan Breaux Simonds Gummere Calhoun.

magnolia, daisy breaux

Daisy’s headstone in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston. Photo by Mark R. Jones

 

 

 

 

One Year After- A Review

The most realistic end-of-the-world scenario story continues …

In the first novel One Second After, the community of Black Mountain, NC loses all electrical power one day, and it never comes back. They soon realize it is also off everywhere in the United States, and possibly across the world. In that one second, the world has been thrown back into the technology of the early 20th century. Read my review here.

51XVT6hIqoL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Will Matherson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and college professor, gradually assumes leadership of the town. He speculates that the disaster was created by an EMP (electro-magnetic-pulse) created by either a solar flare, or was man-made. With no rescue coming, and no electricity, basic services disappear and soon the world descends into chaos.   

One Year After continues the saga of the Black Mountain community, on day 730 after “The Day.”  Matherson learns of a Federal government presence in Asheville, the closest large city, and meets Dale Fredericks, the Director of District Eleven. When Matherson is informed of the draft notices for the new Army of National Recovery the shadow totalitarian rule begins to creep into the story. Matheson and his community are forced to make a choice … throw in with a government they don’t know, or truly trust, or fight to keep their local community intact.

Like many middle books of a trilogy, One Year After, has a slightly unfinished feel. However, once again, William R. Forstchen has created an all-too-real scenario, that is part entertainment, part morality lesson, and part cautionary tale.

4 palmettos

House of Thieves: A Review

Intriguing premise that quickly becomes a write-by-numbers plot, with an unbelievable Hollywood Dan Brown-style conclusion that was ridiculous. It’s also obvious that the author, Charles Belfoure, is an architect, since his descriptions of buildings and their designs offer the best writing in the book. Too bad he didn’t bother to create characters as interesting as the buildings.  

House+of+Thieves+-+Charles+BelfoureJohn Cross, a successful architect in late 19th century New York City, has a problem. Seems his eldest son has accumulated excessive gambling debts, and is entangled in a web of organized crime, thugs and opium dens.  A gentleman gangster, James Kent, is determined to make the son, or the father, pay up. So the son is kidnaped and John is blackmailed into helping Kent and his gang set up robberies of prominent New York citizens whose houses and office buildings Cross designed.

Cross gets in deeper with the gang, finds he actually enjoys the robberies, and then, his wife gets involved, as does his teenage daughter and younger son. Talk about stretching the limits of the suspension-of-disbelief? The characters soon became boorish and I openly rooted for the older son to be killed, since his selfish behavior was the root of the entire plot and he was such an ass. By the end, this upper crust, prim-and-proper family, is involved in the world of pickpockets, murderers, opium dealers, and organized illegal gambling. The climactic scene takes place during the dedication ceremony of the Statue of Liberty and is so silly that I literally tossed the book on the floor.  

Instead of going for gritty realism, depicting the disparity between the New York elites and the horrific poverty of the lower class and the homelessness of thousands of children, the author, Charles Belfoure, opted for a sanitized on-the-surface plot and shallow characters.  

2 palmettos