Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy is a pleasant, delightful piece of historical murder mystery fiction. This is the second book by the author and having not read the first one, my introduction to both the author and the main character Mary Handley. Now, I don’t tend to read a lot of murder mystery and if I do, I would argue that they fall more on the thriller/suspense side but I love well written, accurate historical fiction. Heck, half of the random facts filed away somewhere in the vast reaches of my brain are from historical fiction novels.

The novel is set in Brooklyn during the year 1890. Mary Handley, the daughter of a butcher, is an young, intelligent, (unofficial) consulting detective attempting to establish herself as a professional. In the first novel, she successfully helps the Brooklyn police close a tricky murder case and now finds herself at loose ends waiting for another potential case. As luck would have it, she is hired by a woman to investigate the 20 year old death of the woman’s uncle where there is suspicion of foul play.

With this review, I don’t want to dive too deep into the plot and provide spoilers but I will say that the twist and turns kept on coming. Mary’s investigation into the uncle’s death uncovers a buried coffin full of stone and that the uncle apparently died not once but twice eight years apart and in two different locations! Other murders, seemingly unconnected to Mary’s investigation, being to occur and the deeper Mary dives into this case, the more she realizes that she is playing fire with Brooklyn’s snobbish elite and the underworld social climbers that pull the strings. As if Mary doesn’t have enough on her plate with missing bodies and cold leads, her brother is arrested for the murder of his fiance (a close friend of Mary’s), and she falls in love with a Vanderbilt and becomes engaged.

I admit to skepticism as to the validity of some facts in this novel. Being somewhat scarred by Hollywood’s inability to keep historically accurate facts in the forefront of their movies, I felt it prudent to keep a running list of things to cross check as this novel seemed chock full of potentially disappointing untrue facts. So with that, I set out to confirm if the below list could be realistic for a person in Brooklyn in the 1890’s to know about or to be a current practice for the era:

  • Embalming still a current practice?
  • Jujitsu?
  • French form of kickboxing called Savate
  • Would a women have a boyfriend

Good ol’ Google did surprisingly confirm these facts: Embalming became popular in the U.S. during the civil war; in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s, the U.S. became fascinated with Japanese culture especially martial arts and so it’s very likely that Mary could have been introduced and trained in jujitsu and there were even debates in England as to whether a boxer could be defeated by a trained martial artist (see website here); while I couldn’t find any proof that Savate was present in the U.S. in the 1890’s (albeit after only a brief internet search), given the popularity it had in Europe during that same time period, I don’t think it’s beyond the scope of historical accuracy that Mary wouldn’t have known and/or been trained in Savate, especially as it was lauded as a self-defense art; and lastly, yes, it is conceivable that a women in or around the 1890’s could indeed have had a boyfriend (linguist history lesson here) and referred to said boyfriend in social conversation.

I can’t remember the last time a novel challenged me to question history but I am pleased that the author obviously did his homework and must have complied some exhaustive research in the writing of Mary’s second adventure. This author’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by an interview he had with a fellow wordpress blogger and also that he put a lot of effort into ensuring the characters spoke accurately for that time frame. I am  still unconvinced on this point but am going to trust in the author on this one. Head over to Book Club Mom to read the interview.

All in all, I enjoyed Brooklyn on Fire. Mary Handley is not a perfect person (a bit prejudice against the rich and privilege) but she is a witty, strong woman living by her own terms and is entirely identifiable with in this current day and age and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. I will give one spoiler alert though- my hopelessly romantic soul is sad her engagement ended. Love is a fickle thing.


 

Brooklyn on Fire is available Jan. 19th, 2016. Find more information here and check out Lawrence H. Levy’s website here.

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. My first pre-release book ever! Click the link above for more information.

 

Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons

Phases of Gravity by Dan Simmons

I had high hopes for this book and yet was oddly not compelled or captivated by the story line. I struggled to finish it and had I not added it as a selection for my 2016 challenge, I don’t know that I would have finished. Is something wrong with me?

Some of my favorite books are by Dan Simmons: Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Terror: A Novel, Drood. Each of these was a lyrical, gripping novel, either with a historical setting or pure fantasy/sci-fi, but all demonstrating Simmons ability to draw his reader in with beautiful words, unpredictable plots, fascinating characters and deftly capturing the vast reaches of human nature.

So why did Phases of Gravity feel flat to me? I grabbed this off the library shelf based on my love of the author’s other titles and because of the (misleading?) inside jacket summary: “Phases of Gravity is a novel about the power of dreams and the possibility of second chances, about journeys remembered and newly undertaken.” OK, I get all of that and could write a literary paper pulling out segments that fit each of those pieces but overall…I’m disappointed. Unmoved. Puzzled.

Comprised of constant, sometimes disjointed, flashbacks, this novel centers around Richard Baedecker, former NASA astronaut who walked on the moon. 16 years after his moon walk, Richard (or Dick as he is commonly referred to in the book) is struggling to understand his place in the universe. His marriage has ended, and he has no real relationship with his son, Scott. In an attempt to reconnect, he travels to India where Scott has joined up with guru on his farm for meditation, cleansing and answer searching. While in India, he meets Maggie Brown, also in the area to see Scott. Richard and Maggie end up spending time together touring the area and Richard is intrigued by this young, self-possessed woman talking about “places of power” and the effect they can have on a person. Eventually, later in the book, they start a relationship that is short-lived and predictable from page one of her entry.

Along the chapters, Richard encounters the other members of the space mission team: one found God and started a successful church; another, Dave, became a politician, writer, soon-to-be father himself and is battling cancer When Dave dies in a plane crash where he was pilot and only crew member, his widow ask Richard to investigate how this happened and why Dave was heading for his apparent destination at the time of the crash with the unspoken question being did he commit suicide. What ensues next is soul searching by Richard of when does one full experience a moment of happiness in this mortal life?

The book ends with Richard finding his way and peace with himself. He repairs his relationship with his son after a daring (and random) visit by helicopter to the new farm in Oregon his master from India relocated to, decides to honor Dave’s pre-death request to help him finish the book he had started and seeks out Maggie, whom he loves, to try and rekindle their relationship. The books ends with Richard having a transcendental moment up on a mountain in a “place of power” with Maggie calling his name.

Perhaps what really caused the disconnect with me for this book is that it felt cliche; a recycled male mid-life crisis plot so-to-speak. Older man searching for himself by journey to a foreign country and then across the US, quits his job, hooks up with a hot, young but precocious and deep woman, suffers the loss of a close friend triggering subsequent questions of one’s own mortality, etc, etc. I can understand how having once walked on the moon, the pull of Earth’s gravity would pale in comparison to the experience but overall I felt this novel was both trying to hard to instill deeper messaging into it’s pages and yet was overall unimaginative in the effort.

While reviews of this books span the board, it is with a disappointed frowny face and hope for the next Dan Simmons book I read, that I return Phases of Gravity to the library.

 

 

 

2016 Book Challenge

OK, maybe this is  bit of bandwagon joining and post- New Years resolution setting but after talking with a friend about book challenges and her desire to try and organize/track the massive list of books she wants to read, I realized that I have never participated in a book challenge.  Well, not since I was a wee one participating in the county library summer reading challenges, which I totally rocked for the record! “How is that possible?” inquiring minds probably aren’t asking but oddly enough, it hasn’t crossed my mind previously to attempt a guided reading journey, so why not this year? Life is already predicted to be crazy moving forward (grad school?) and I am trying to challenge myself to expand my literary horizons. The book club I formed with two friends last year has done wonder in this area (still recovering  from Carsick by John Waters although he was incredibly entertaining at the Christmas concert we saw about a month ago) and I look forward to the many reading adventures yet to come but along the way, why not throw some additional challenges into the mix and also help prevent this blog consisting of many novels of similar genre and scope?

A quick search on my beloved Pinterest resulted in a few different challenge “lists” floating around the interweb. While I didn’t find one that perfectly fit what I was looking for (which if I thought more about it, finding a list that perfectly suited my desires and literary likes would be defeating the purpose), I did come across the below list from PopSugar which looks like it has been recycled for a few years but hey! still relevant for this year.

Now, it looks like some people assign crazy rules to their challenges: read a book every week for the entire year until finished or don’t pick books that you have already read and re-read them, only physical books, no audio or kindle versions etc. I am going to take a much looser interpretation of this list and say that my goal is just to read a book in every category, in whatever order/format that may take before the end of the year and (hopefully) blog about a fair number of them for your entertainment. Head over to the 2016 book challenge page to see what I will be reading for each category (listed below) and also keep an eye on the 2016 Book Count page as I can only imagine that I will be reading other novels that don’t fall into one of the 40 below categories.

If you are interested in joining this challenge, please comment often and let me know what you are reading for each section and how you are progressing overall. The more, the merrier in the book world!

~Erica

2016 Reading Challenge as posted on PopSugar.com

  • A book based on a fairy tale
  • A National Book Award winner
  • A YA bestseller
  • A book you haven’t read since high school
  • A book set in your home state
  • A book translated to English
  • A romance set in the future
  • A book set in Europe
  • A book that’s under 150 pages
  • A New York Times bestseller
  • A book that’s becoming a movie this year
  • A book recommended by someone you just met
  • A self-improvement book
  • A book you can finish in a day
  • A book written by a celebrity
  • A political memoir
  • A book at least 100 years older than you
  • A book that’s more than 600 pages
  • A book from Oprah’s Book Club
  • A science-fiction novel
  • A book recommended by a family member
  • A graphic novel
  • A book that is published in 2016
  • A book with a protagonist who has your occupation
  • A book that takes place during Summer (why summer?)
  • A book and it’s prequel
  • A murder mystery
  • A book written by a comedian
  • A dystopian novel
  • A book with a blue cover (why blue?)
  • A book of poetry
  • The first book you see in a bookstore
  • A classic from the 20th century
  • A book from the library
  • An autobiography
  • A book about a road trip
  • A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
  • A satirical book
  • A book that takes place on an island
  • A book that’s guaranteed to bring you joy

Kicking Off Another Year

Hard to believe that 2015 is almost over. So many books still left to read, so little time! I have been remiss in blogging recently and as I reflect on what the 2015 year has been and what I am hoping for 2016, developing a discipline and schedule for posting is high on my list. I am also venturing out of my comfort zone (being a self-proclaimed introvert prone to long spells of book escapism) in 2016 and will be actively sharing my blog post to social media. Ekk! I tremble a bit at the thought but see it as a pathway for personal growth. I love reading, am enjoying the freedom to review what I read and hope to grow this blog into a forum for other book lovers to be entertained or even discover a new book/author/genre.

I hope you enjoy exploring my blog and watching it’s growth over the next year!

 

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How every evening should be spent….

Ship of Theseus or more commonly known as “What the heck did I just read?”

Ekk! Where did a month go? The black hole of work-minded routine sucked me in once again along with feeble attempts to enjoy the last blistering days of an uncommonly hot Oregon summer. Why did I think this would be a good time to start half-marathon training again?? Jury is still out…

But in more blog-relevant news, a co-worker gave me a book that she felt was a must-read for an obsessive, intelligent, literary-minded soul such as myself. I admit to confusion as she handed me what looked to be a library book complete with slip cover. As I pulled the book out of the innocent protection case, a postcard fell out. Thinking it was hers, I started to hand it back only to be stopped by the knowing grin on her face.

“It’s part of the book. Story within a story kind of thing.”

Intrigued, I flipped through a few pages and noticed the margin writings and other extras slipped here and there between the pages. What did she just give me?

I admit I let this book sit on the small table behind the couch for a few days. I was intimidated to start such a book but also felt a magnetic pull to dive into the stor(ies) within. I could see myself being sucked in and yet, ill-afford many late night reading escapades. Not as young as I once was! Obviously, I eventually cracked open the front cover and started reading. And know what? The first few pages sucked to read! How in the world was I suppose to process the actually story plot plus the margin “story” and keep it all straight? In addition to that, the book kicks off with an intro that had me even more confused about the nature of the paper journey I was about to embark on. Eventually, I figured out a strategy that kept me sane for the 500 pages SoT encompasses and found myself swept away more by the margin story (hopeless romantic syndrome inserted here) than the actually novel plot which turned out to be climatic way too early in the plot and prose-riddled unto the end.

Given the complexity of this story within a story with various conspiracy theory sub-plots and speculations, and still processing my feelings as I finished the book a mere hour ago, I feel ill-equipped in my (very) young, amateur blogging life to attempt a review of this book and give it the justice and depth it deserves. If you are interested in exploring the inter-workings for Ship of Theseus more, please click the below link for a review I feel appropriately (albeit with a little profanity) summarizes not only the plot but also the mental states and questions you will experience along the reading of this book.

This book is a fresh challenge in the best kind of way and while not the most epic thing I have ever read (not even sure what I would put on that list but may give that more thought for a future post), it was refreshing and captivating because it was different and aren’t we all looking for something to break up the literary mundaneness once in a while?

http://pantheonmag.com/s-by-j-j-abrams-doug-dorst/

Ready Player One- Willy Wonka for the internet age

I’m not sure where the summer has gone. I was happily meeting my goal to post at least once per week and then summer time social craziness happened and here we are in the middle of August. At least the time has been spent creating memories and having a few some adventures.

My boyfriend is once again to be thanked for introducing me to another addicting book although this time he did so with an innocent smile and a glib “want to be hooked on another book?” as he connected his phone to my car stereo and hit play on the audiobook for our camping trip drive up the mountain. 4 hours audio plot twist left me bereft and in withdrawal until I broke down and bought the kindle version. No patience to be 105 out of 105 holds at the public library this go around!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a bundle of nostalgia and geekiness for me. 80’s culture, a Willy Wonka- esque story line (many memories of my mom reading that story to me and my brother when we were younger) and a glimpse of the internet future with all its cultural pros and cons. And did I mention geekiness galore!? You should already want to read this book.

But if you need additional convincing/facts/ clues to the location of the holy grail, then read on, my friend! Ready Player One is the story of an eccentric, reclusive brilliant gaming nerd (Halliday) who dies with no heirs, 240 billion dollars and controlling stock in the company he help found. He creates an egg hunt (in reference and homage to the “Easter eggs” hidden in several Atari games) which invites every member of the Oasis (more on that shortly) to search for 3 keys and 3 gates hidden within the Oasis which will lead to the egg, the fortune and control of the company.

Halliday helped create what is known as the Oasis- a massive, multiplayer online simulation game where members sign up for 25 cents, buy a set of haptic gloves and a visor that allows interaction with the environment and away they go. Members create an avatar -aka- who every they wish they were but aren’t in real life (male, female, tall, short, beautiful, ugly, human, non-human) and interaction with the Oasis worlds (Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, Firefly, Tolkien, Harry Potter, the plants of our solar systems; you get the idea. Why can’t the Oasis exists??) through their avatars including pvp combat, treasure hunting, social platforms, shopping and other nefarious or adult behaviors to name a few.

The Oasis was launched during a time in world history where real life is grim- a 2-year wait list for a job in fast food kind of grim, and many people live their entire lives on the Oasis including finding employment in various positions associated with and within the Oasis. A generation of children are raised by the Oasis similar to what we have experienced with the TV and internet ages of the past and present. **Side note, the book raises an interesting social conversation topic- given what has already been seen with the gaming world and people willing to live most of their lives in virtual fantasy worlds online, is the advance of technology towards an Oasis to be met with excitement or concern?**end side note.

The novel follows the path of one avatar- Wade Owen Watts- aka Parzival as he quest to find solve “the Hunt” as it becomes known. He is 17, poor and has a low level avatar = seemingly no resources to undertake/solve a quest that has baffled people for 5 years after Halliday’s death and the launch of the challenge. Whole clans and corporations have formed to find the first key to no avail but where there is a will, there is a way…

OK cheesey line but this is one story where I actually don’t want to give away any spoilers. If you are into gaming, 80’s culture, geekiness, like the thought of playing in a simulation world, loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or just plain want something epic, adventurous and entertaining to read, then add Ready Player One to your list. Or if audio books are your thing, the book is narrated by the dreamy, uber-nerd Wil Wheaton… you’re welcome.

Warner Bros has bought the rights to movie version with Spielberg slated to direct. Please don’t let them screw this up! I can’t live with another Starship Troopers situation- a beautifully tragic morality tale of sacrifice, war, responsibility and politics that Hollywood bastardized into a gimmicky POS with sequels!! My soul still hurts a little. 😦 And if I have made this reference before in another post, then you understand how deep the hurt goes.

Oh, and if you think I am over-exaggerating the 80’s culture reference, check out this wikia page for a list….

http://readyplayerone.wikia.com/wiki/Ready_Player_One

Coming Soon- Carsick or the fiction/non-fiction crazy combo novel by John Waters which may have scarred me for life.

The capacity to forgive- Railway Man

I’m not sure why I was moved to read this book after seeing a preview for the recently released movie of the same title (starring the dreamy Colin Firth) as I tend to shy away from WWII-related books and movies- especially if based on a real event or is a memoir. Historical events of the 20th century still feel a little too close to current times that I am often discomforted by the reading of such books and rarely force myself to watch war movies as I usually end up crying the entire time. I blame being forced to watch “All Quiet on the Western Front” as a precocious 7th grader. That movie has haunted me.

Cinematically traumatic memories aside, I was intrigued by the story line for Railway Man. Perhaps it was due to my being fairly ignorant to the horrors inflicted on British soldiers within the Asian theater during WWII as more of my history centers around the Holocaust and European theaters of that time. I was also pulled in by the wonders of fate that allowed a man who was so horribly tortured and survived events that most of us can’t even being to fathom, the opportunity to 50 years later meet the man who was the interpreter during his torture and the fixation of his hatred for what he experienced.

Railway Man is an autobiography written by Eric Lomax. Perhaps it is the span of time in between when these heinous events occurred and when he was able to finally write about the events, but the book read with a sense of distance to it. Understandable given the descriptions of torture the author lived through along with his time spent in the Changi prison. Lomax was captured by the Japanese when Singapore was surrendered in Feb. 1942 and eventually ended up with thousands of other POW’s building the Burma Railway (tens of 1000’s of people died in the building of this railway). Lomax was tortured under suspicion of anti-Japanese activities due to his suspected involvement in helping to build a radio while in the POW camp. He was found guilty of this charge and transferred to another Singapore prison where he spent the remainder of the war.

Lomax had a difficult time adjusting back to civilian life and he talks at length in his memoir on this topic as he is able to reflect on how his experiences in the war changed him. He became a patient of Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in the mid-1980’s where he received counseling to help him both deal with what he experienced and document his experiences as a POW.

The most powerful part of his story is when he is able to meet the interpreter, Nagase Takeshi**, and forgive him for his part in the torture Lomax experienced.

As I finished this memoir, I couldn’t help but cry a little at Lomax’s capacity to forgive a man who was fundamental to the pain and suffering he endured. While you could argue that even if Takeshi had wanted to protest the torture being inflicted on Lomax and others that were being interrogated, this likely would have been a death sentence for Takeshi and probably not changed the outcome of Lomax’s story. My own thoughts also ran along the lines of could I forgive something so great? I think of my daily life and those of people around me and what we choose to focus on, hold against each other and allow to be unforgiven but are they worthwhile things to fall into an “unforgivable” category? Perhaps it is all relative to what we do experience in our lives. I can only hope that I never live through such a brutal and life-altering experience where my capacity to forgive, heal and find peace at what I endured at the hands of my fellow man would be tested. I honestly don’t know what the outcome would be.

Railway Man also reminded me that WWII stories need to continue being present in our 21st century world. More so as fewer and fewer are left to share firsthand accounts, and sadly being replaced with others from different generations who have their own difficult memories to battle.

**Nagase Takeshi wrote his own memoir called Crosses and Tigers and spent much of his life post-war leading people back to the Burma railway to discover the mass burial graves of railway workers. He also financed the construction of a Buddhist temple at the River Kwai bridge as part of his atonement for his part in the war.