Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review of Jane Austen: The Banker's Sister by E.J. Clery

Image of Jane Austen: The Banker's Sister

Author: E.J. Clery
Publish Date: October 17, 2017
Publisher: Biteback
Pages: 400
Buy the book from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Jane-Austen-Bankers-Sister-Clery/dp/1785901761/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1508264627&sr=8-2

Without a doubt, every fan of English literature has read at least one of Jane Austen's celebrated novels. Her works are inextricably linked to the Regency era of British history. All six of her finished novels were published during this period, making them representative Regency romances.

The Regency era lasted a mere nine years, from February 1811 until January 1820. It was marked by romance, style, and etiquette. In 1810, King George III was taken seriously ill and was declared unable to rule because of mental incapacity. The Regency Act was passed the following year making his son George Prince Regent to rule in his stead. The Regency lasted until George III’s death in 1820 when the Regent became King George IV and was able to rule in his own right.

Although Austen wrote her novels at a young age, her ideas were far beyond her years, which still hold true today. A master at taking conventional life and making it extraordinary, Austen began her most famous piece, Pride and Prejudice, at the early age of 20 which became an instant success almost immediately and continue to be very popular today.

“They were drawn together by temperament. Both of them quick and witty, while his boundless optimism and enthusiasm counterbalanced her occasional tendency to low spirits and irritability…His career was blighted by the bank failure but one could say that Jane’s genius redeemed his losses. We owe her novels to his speculative endeavors.”

Henry Thomas Austen (1771–1850) was Jane’s favorite brother and was the sibling most like her in looks and temperament. He was witty and enthusiastic in whatever he did; the eternal optimist, though success did not always find him. He was most influential in allowing Jane to publish her works. Not only was his home available for her to stay in during her trips to London to work with her publisher, these visits also gave her an insight into society life that she would not otherwise have had, furnishing settings, events, and characters for her novels to come. It was Henry who saw to the publication of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey after her death, and it was Henry who wrote the brief, but loving biographical notice which prefaced these two novels and provided the world with their first glimpse into the life of this author.

When it was announced that Jane Austin would appear on the new ten pound note in 2017, few were aware that a ten pound Austen banknote already exited—issued by her favorite brother. Handsome, clever and enterprising, Henry Austen founded a bank business and charmed his way into the top rank of aristocratic society before going spectacularly bust in the financial crisis of 1816. He left an enduring legacy, however, for it was Henry who supported Jane’s dream of becoming a published author.

 “. . . in all this critical commentary, the figure of Henry Austen, Jane’s most important and direct link with the economic transformations of her time, has been almost entirely absent.”

In E. J. Clery’s new book,  Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, the distinguished literary critic, professor and cultural historian explores new methodology to the study of the celebrated novelist, revealing a tantalizing look into how Austen’s classic works were shaped by her close relationship with her brother, as well as the financial scandals and disasters of the Regency era.

Despite the fact that there are a plethora of biographies on Jane Austen, there are some noteworthy gaps in what is known about her life and works. Clery’s masterful and scholarly interpretation of Austen’s family dynamics, political links, and financial successes and failures provides an interesting and fresh approach to the study of this illustrious novelist’s life and legacy.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

Image of Between a Wolf and a Dog

Author: Georgia Blain
Publish Date: October 10, 2017
Publisher: Scribe
Pages: 272
Buy from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Between-Wolf-Dog-Georgia-Blain/dp/1925321118/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1507731881&sr=8-1&keywords=georgia+blain

On December 9, 2016 Australian writer Georgia Blain died from a brain tumor. Her life contained more than its share of tragedies and disappointments. In her award winning writings she examined the mundane and often over looked moments of everyday life with brilliant style, keen insight and tenderness.

Between a Wolf and a Dog, Blain’s eighth and final novel, takes its title from a French phrase for twilight, (L’heure entre chien et loup), the hazy and often murky hour between day and night which makes seeing and interpreting objects very difficult. In heartbreaking irony, the novel begins with a scene in which Hilary, the mother of Esther and April, reveals that she has cancer and that the tumor has spread to her brain.

Esther is a family therapist with an appointment book that catalogues the anxieties of the middle class: loneliness, relationships, death. She spends her days helping others find happiness, but her own family relationships are tense and frayed. Estranged from both her sister, April, and her ex-husband, Lawrence, Esther wants to fall in love again.

Meanwhile, April is struggling through her own directionless life; Lawrence’s reckless past decisions are catching up with him; and Esther and April’s mother; Hilary, is about to make a choice that will profoundly affect them all. The scenes of the book take place over one seemly ordinary rainy day in Sydney, and poignantly reveal the voices of the troubled and heartbroken, that seem to echo Esther’s own concerns, fears, and hopefulness.

Rendered with haunting and powerful prose this is a stylish, clever and moving novel from a writer at the height of her writing abilities. The experience of reading Between a Wolf and a Dog, though, is larger and more profound than its pages.

“We have to stay ignorant of our blessings. Perhaps we can only carry our good fortune with us if we don’t know that we are doing it—otherwise we would be overwhelmed by anxiety at the possibility of its loss.”

What is significant about this novel is the way it seamlessly balances unhappiness and sorrow, and its inevitable sense of heartbreak with optimism. Blain writes of Hilary’s struggles with her diagnosis and mortality: “. . . loosening herself, trying to unpick the grip of life from her limbs, aware of how quickly time has been pushing her forward, shoving her now, relentless and sure, into this tiny space, the last moments, where she needs more strength than she has ever needed before,” any expectation of serious indifference ceases to exist.

Whittled down to its most elementary points, Between a Wolf and a Dog is basically a novel about love and understanding. It is essentially an homage to the glory of being alive and its message will resonate long after its final pages have been read.

It is a painfully truthful depiction of family and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. But it is also a celebration of what’s good in all of us—our ability to live in the face of everyday worries and disappointments, and to draw power and positivity from its transformative control.

“Like all of her works,” Blain writes, of Hilary’s final film, “it demands trust from the audience, that this seemingly random scatter of images will find a narrative order.” In this way, a work of art is similar to a life. This brilliant and thought provoking novel has thus become an incredibly powerful statement and significant story, which Blain has graciously gifted to all of us.

On a whole, Blain’s entire body of writings are emotionally driven with an honesty that requires the reader to be courageous in the face of pain. They make us profoundly aware of how we experience our own life and how we ought to live. The characters of her novels are often distressed, indecisive, but never faultless. They are, like all of us, inconsistent and flawed. Her narratives never give us the false hope of living happily ever after, but instead, overflow with the understanding that life does not always deliver security and comfort. What Georgia Blain’s works give us is the simple knowledge that life—whether long or short, complex or simple—most certainly always goes on.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Review of A Murder in Music City By Michael Bishop

Author: Michael Bishop
Publish Date: September 5, 2017
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Pages: 330

"Paula Herring’s murder had been predicted for months. That the victim was a [pretty blond coed wasn’t all that surprising to authorities, especially since a number of young women in one of Nashville’s newest subdivisions had been targeted by a rapist for more than a year. Metro Police had predicted that the activities of the rapist would eventually escalate to murder.”

Eighteen-year-old Paula Herring was “a girl full of the joy of being alive . . . warm, lovable, intensely energetic, and full of plans for the future.” On February 22, 1964, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, freshmen was shot to death in the den of her mother’s suburban Nashville home. In the next room slept her six-year-old brother, apparently unaware of the gruesome event.

A few months later a judge’s son is convicted of the crime. Decades after the slaying, author Michael Bishop stumbled upon a secret file related to the case and with the help of some of the world’s top forensic experts—including forensic psychologist Richard Walter (aka “the living Sherlock Holmes”) he uncovered the truth of what really happened to Paula Herring, and his conclusions are completely different from what the public was initially led to believe.

In 1997, Michael Bishop, a sales executive for a healthcare learning company accidently came across files that contained information about the Herring murder case. For the past two decades he tenaciously investigated and enthusiastically followed the evidence trail, which led to a new theory of who might have actually murdered Paula Herring.

In A Murder in Music City: Corruption, Scandal, and the Framing of an Innocent Man, Bishop lays out the shocking and overwhelming evidence that led to his startling conclusion that a small group of influential Nashville residents played a significant role in covering-up evidence and actively assisted in sending an innocent man to prison for a crime he did not commit.

In this gripping page-turner, Bishop reveals the grisly realties and true story behind the murder of Paula Herring. This first time author and amateur detective proves to be amazingly effective in his writing abilities and his first-person description of the steps he used to discover evidence in the case gives the story a sense of proximity to the present.

By relentlessly following every lead and using his “sales skills” to gain the trust of those he questioned, Bishop reveals plausible proof that John Randolph Clarke was indeed framed for the murder, and goes on to formulate a reasonable and disturbing theory as to the scandalous identity of the actual killer.

Overall, A Murder in Music City gives the reader a good sense of what it was like to live in 1960s Nashville, and as his investigation into this half a century’s old closed case unfolds into the present day. Bishop’s shocking and very plausible conclusions are thought provoking and compelling. But because it tends to follow the author’s own experiences with the case, the narrative unfortunately tends to get off track and bogs down in places. With that said, true crime enthusiasts will most certainly find this book to be hauntingly compelling. A highly recommended thrill ride of narrative true crime that tells a sad story of murder, family betrayal, and political corruption that is equal parts thought provoking, captivating, and unforgettable.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review of Seance Infernale by Jonathan Skariton

Image of Séance Infernale: A novel

Author: Jonathan Skariton
Publish Date: August 30, 2017
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 304
Buy the book from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/S%C3%A9ance-Infernale-novel-Jonathan-Skariton/dp/1101946733/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504127838&sr=8-1&keywords=seance+infernale

Alex Whitman is a successful movie memorabilia dealer, “part archeologist, part detective” who is widely known to be able to locate any object related to the film industry.

“His almost photographic memory of catalogs, locations, and specifications allowed him to beat out collectors and dealers who wagered thousands of dollars depending on whether . . . a film reel found in the depth of a dank basement contained lost scene or desirable splices.”

In the autumn of 2002, Whitman is hired by eccentric film collector Andrew Valdano to find and piece together what could be fragments of the first film ever made, Séance Infernale. In 1890, its creator, Augustin Sekuler, planned to unveil his “motion picture machine” to the public.
He boarded a train headed from Dijon to Paris, but never arrived at Gare de Lyon train station. Sekuler and his invention mysteriously disappeared somewhere along the way, and his claim as the creator of the moving picture vanished with him.

A modern day search to solve the mysterious disappearance leads to curious discoveries that may (or may not) shed light on Sekuler’s darkest secret. While searching out these answers Whitman’s investigation takes a personal turn. Two years before Sekuler’s own disappearance Whitman finds out that the inventor’s young daughter disappeared under suspicious circumstances. In a weird coincidence Whitman’s five-year-old daughter, Ellie, had also disappeared in Edinburgh never to be heard from again—a macabre kinship the two men would share nearly a century apart.

“Her disappearance had marked the last in a number of high profile child kidnappings that had prompted fear throughout the city of Edinburgh, beginning with the kidnapping and death of Danielle McKenzie in February of 1984, followed by a series of further abductions.”

The search for the elusive Sekuler film was now personally intermingled with the police investigation of an unapprehended serial killer. When Whitman successfully tracks down what could be fragments of Sekuler’s lost film, the discovery raises more questions than it answers. Could the greatest mystery in the history of film involve a train, a disappearance, a grieving family, and a possible patent war?
Séance Infernale is Jonathan Skariton’s debut novel. In it the author pays loose homage to the action adventure/ supernatural thriller genre that spawned novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The basic plot of Skariton’s novel bears resemblance to a series of unexpected trap doors that pop open and closed, and although this technique is very clichéd it lends just enough intrigue to keep your fascination.

Overall, the initial plotline is satisfactorily captivating: Movie memorabilia hunter traverses the globe in search of the first motion picture only to discover the film has a dark and supernatural theme and history. After that the story takes on a murky and chaotic journey that involves a psychotic serial killer roaming the streets of Edinburgh with an unbelievable and unnecessary personal connection to the protagonist.

On a whole, Séance Infernale is an entertaining read, and the horror and constant pain of Whitman’s personal loss is poignant, heart wrenching, and palpable: “It was easy to surrender to the painful nostalgia of Ellie’s memory. At night in bed, if he closed his eyes, in that gulf of space perception before falling asleep, he could see her, a warm and miraculous fantasy. Wakefulness would take away what he’d glimpsed and he’d experience the loss all over again.”

The reader must be warned that the novel does contain explicit language and disturbing descriptions of sexual acts, gruesome death scenes, autopsies, rape, and murder. Although these unsettling and often unnecessarily graphic descriptions are titillating and not for the faint of heart; the gothic and supernatural atmosphere of the novel is its most engaging facet and this alone will most certainly keep the average mystery/ thriller reader on the edge of their seat until the heart pounding final pages.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Review of Holding by Graham Norton


Author: Graham Norton
Release date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: Atria Books
Pages: 272
Buy from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Holding-Novel-Graham-Norton/dp/150117326X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501601603&sr=8-1&keywords=holding

Sergeant PJ Collins was not born in Duneen, but he has been the little town’s resident police officer for more than a decade and a half. Significantly overweight, PJ uses his size as an emotional shield to explain away his loneliness. As policemen go, he is liked by the denizens of the insular Irish village, even if he was no ball of fire. But little happens in Duneen anyway—until one day, when something quite dramatic occurs. Builders putting up a housing estate on the long-deserted Burke farm find the remains of a body buried on the land. Now the sleepy, gossipy town is all atwitter, and PJ is excited to have his first real case.

“When PJ hung up the phone, he felt strangely deflated. Help was on the way, which was what he wanted, what he needed, but once it arrived this would no longer be his case. He would just be another useless man standing around at the scene, a sort of crime butler servicing those who would find out the identity of the body and how it died.”

Do the remains belong to Tommy Burke, the young heir to the farm who disappeared about 20 years ago? Rumor has long held that Tommy was seen boarding the bus to Cork the day he went missing, but has he been buried there all along?

Turns out the builders have opened up more than a hole in the ground—they have opened old wounds, as well. PJ quickly discovers that just before he disappeared, Tommy was at the apex of an ugly love triangle involving two young women in the village, both of whom still live in Duneen. Brid Riordan was engaged to marry Tommy, but a knockdown, drag-out fight in the street with Evelyn Ross told the town all it needed to know about Tommy’s true affections.

Now, all these years later, PJ needs to piece together the events surrounding Tommy’s disappearance. His investigation leads him to close quarters with both women—Brid a dissolute alcoholic and Evelyn a sheltered spinster—and triggers surprising, quite different forms of intimacy with each. But there are others in the town, including PJ’s own housekeeper, Mrs. Meany, who all seem to know more than they are saying. And then the police discover something quite surprising about the body. . . .
In Graham Norton’s debut novel, Holding, the author uses his typically sharp and piercing sense of humor to breathe life into a multitude of delightful characters. The author is an award-winning television talk show host and comedian in the U.K. and in 2016 published his bestselling memoir, The Life and Loves of a He Devil. He also writes a weekly advice column for The Telegraph.

Set in the tiny village of Duneen, Ireland, which has “somehow managed to slip through the World Wide Web. No 4G, no 3G, no signal.” The plot of Holding revolves around three main characters: Sergeant PJ Collins, Evelyn Ross, and Brid Riordan. The mystery itself—the discovery of a skeleton found buried at the sight of a new housing project—is astonishingly not the central focus of the plot. Its main emphasis is how the discovery affects each of the main characters through love, secrets, and loss.

Overall, Holding admirably captures the peculiarities of small town Ireland. Although the mystery plot is not the most riveting, it is certainly entertaining and succeeds in capturing a unique perspective on the peculiarities of life in rural Ireland. At times both distressing and tender, and yet darkly comedic, Graham Norton has created a charming debut novel that is well-worth reading.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Review of Perish From the Earth by Jonathan F. Putnam


Author: Jonathan F. Putnam
Release Date: July 11, 2017
Publisher: Crooked Lane
Pages: 304
Buy book from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Perish-Earth-Lincoln-Speed-Mystery/dp/1683311396/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1499788543&sr=8-1&keywords=perish+from+the+earth

“plenty of intrigue to delight mystery genre enthusiasts, enough historical accuracy to placate any history buff, and sufficient courtroom drama to satisfy any legal eagle.”

Two hundred and nine years after his birth in a log cabin in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln continues to fascinate. His moral clarity, his extraordinary gifts with language, his decisive role in preserving the Union and what some consider his ultimate martyrdom combine to make Lincoln a mythic figure that still has a firm hold on our collective imagination. It is commonly known that Lincoln had a deep commitment to the rule law and an abhorrence of mob rule. A conservative estimate puts the number of books written about the 16th President at around 16,000.

Nationally renowned trial lawyer and avid amateur Lincoln scholar Jonathan F. Putnam adds to this number with his new historical novel Perish from the Earth, the second installment in the Lincoln and Speed mystery series. In this sequel to These Honored Dead (2016), we find Kentucky gentleman Joshua Speed once again teaming up with the future president to help solve a murder aboard a Mississippi riverboat in 1837.

“The circuit was a kind of traveling legal circus. Several times a year, during breaks in the court calendar in Springfield, a group of lawyers would pack their saddlebags and, with a judge in tow, ride an irregular, winding path—a circuit—through the outlying towns and villages that lacked a regular court. At each stop, the lawyers would set up temporary offices, usually under a stout old tree on the village green, and persons of the community having legal issues would come to consult. The judge would erect a rump courtroom, and civil trials would be conducted. Then, after three or four days in any one place, the whole group would pack up and move off together to the next stop.”

Newly minted trail lawyer Abraham Lincoln is riding the circuit, traveling by carriage with other lawyers and a judge to bring justice to the remote parts of Illinois. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s close friend Joshua Speed steams up the Mississippi River aboard a steamboat owned by Speed’s father. Suddenly, his journey is interrupted when a rigged card game turns violent and then to murder.
Speed enlists Lincoln to defend the accused, but soon they come to discover that more than just the card games are crooked aboard the Speed family’s ship. As the Day of Judgment hurtles toward them, Lincoln and Speed must fight to save not only the life of Lincoln’s client but also the merit of Speed’s good name.

Perish from the Earth is an admirable sequel and meticulously researched. In it we see Lincoln as an eager young trial lawyer, employing his gift of storytelling and turning his failures into successes. While Putnam points out that this is a work of “imaginative fiction,” he also states that “the people, places, and cases populating it are drawn from Lincoln’s actual life and times.” Nearly everything in this novel feels plausible and is in keeping with what is historically known about Lincoln and his times. Although the pace of the plot is a bit sluggish and a little unengaging at times, fans of historical and legal fiction will not be disappointed. Overall, there is plenty of intrigue to delight mystery genre enthusiasts, enough historical accuracy to placate any history buff, and sufficient courtroom drama to satisfy any legal eagle.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review of Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner


Author: Susie Steiner
Release date: July 4, 2017
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 312
Buy from Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Persons-Novel-Susie-Steiner/dp/0812998340/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1499356090&sr=8-1&keywords=susie+steiner

As dusk falls, a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding from a stab wound.

“He’s really scared now; nervously places a hand to his chest. His shirt is wet through but it’s not raining. He looks at his hand. It is glistening dark; the color unclear because of the dark and the orangey street lighting.”

He dies where he falls, cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life. Detective Manon Bradshaw handles only cold cases. Five months pregnant, in pursuit of a work-life balance rather than romantic love, she’s focused on being a good mother to her adopted 12-year-old son, Fly Dent, and the new baby. But the man died just yards from the police station where she works, so Manon can’t help taking an interest.

And as she sidles in on the briefing she learns that the victim, a banker from London worth millions, is more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. When the case begins to circle in on Manon’s home and her family, she finds herself pitted against the colleagues she once held dear: Davy Walker and Harriet Harper. Can Manon separate what she knows about the people she loves from the suspicion hanging over them? Can she investigate the evidence just as she would with any other case?

Persons Unknown by celebrated author Susie Steiner brings back fearless detective, Manon Bradshaw in this complex and thrilling sequel. Steiner is the London based author of Home Coming and Missing, Presumed, and has worked as an editor for The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Evening Standard.

An electrifying sequel to 2016’s Missing, Presumed. Readers quickly discover that several years have passed since we last saw Bradshaw. She has adopted 12-year-old Fly Dent, an orphan, is now pregnant, and has moved in with her sister, Ellie, and her young son Solomon in Cambridgeshire. Manon works as a cold case investigator at the local police department. She hopes the change of scenery will bring stability to the family but didn’t consult Fly about the decision.

In London she had “an encroaching fear that he was getting in with the wrong crowd, or possibly that he was the wrong crowd.” Much to his apprehension, Fly hates being the only black kid in town where racial profiling is prevalent; he soon becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his aunt’s ex-boyfriend, Jon-Oliver, a rich London banker. Convinced of her son’s innocence, she conducts her own investigation to uncover the truth behind the killing.

“I can’t leave him here. I can’t . . . someone has to be kind to him. No one’s being kind to him. I was supposed to protect him from stupid adults and look what’s happened.”

Persons Unknown is a gripping and tense, character driven story. It has a complex narrative that keeps the reader captivated and engaged. Susie Steiner effortlessly weaves into the plot a fascinating exposé on social and cultural issues such as race relations and family.

Overall, this an entertaining and absorbing read that strikes all the right chords. The sophisticated and genuine characterizations portrayed in this book series are clearly its greatest strength. Persons Unknown is a complex, exhilarating, and multifaceted murder mystery that includes insightful social and cultural perspectives. Manon Bradshaw is an enchanting protagonist who merits placement among the pantheon of much-loved fictional investigators. A highly recommended read that will definitely excite the most devoted fans of the murder mystery genre.

Michael Thomas Barry's most recent book is In the Company of Evil: Thirty Years of California Crime, 1950–1980. He is the author of six other nonfiction books and is a columnist for CrimeMagazine.com.

Review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on July 5, 2017 - http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/persons-unknown