Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye: Reading Room Review

Lyndsay Faye always manages to find unique stories to tell. Well, I say find, but what she really does is create unique stories built around diligent research she does on the hidden facts of people and places in history. From Jack the Ripper to the early days of the New York City Police Department, this author discloses the unvarnished truth of struggle and survival in the trenches. And, she does so through characters who take our breath away with their perseverance and bravery. There must always be people willing to stand up against the ills of society, the mistreatment of fellow human beings, and Lyndsay Faye gives readers these people’s stories so poignantly that we are forever touched by them. Her characters aren’t perfect people, they have their flaws, but they step up when the stepping is needed. Because I learn important, forgotten or hidden pieces of our history and lessons about what counts doesn’t mean that there is anything dry or didactic about Faye’s writing. Her stories from which I learn so much are gripping masterpieces of narrative in full color. They will tear your heart out but renew your faith in the possibility of good endeavor.

The Paragon Hotel is the tale of Alice James, aka “Nobody,” but she is also the vehicle by which the stories of so many others are told. Beginning in the Harlem district of New York City at the turn of the 20th century and crossing the country to the city of Portland, Oregon in the early 1920s, it is a tale of survival and identity and love and loss. Alice is smack in the middle of the turbulent issues of each place. Being half Italian, she is destined to be involved with Italians and Sicilians and by extension, the Mafia fighting for control of Harlem. Born to a prostitute mother, Alice lives at the hotel where her mother works, and the moniker “Nobody” has been attached to Alice because of her blending in and out of scenes without notice. When a friend’s father is brutally murdered by the mob, fifteen-year-old Alice ends up living at another hotel under the protection of a man vying for control against the Corleone mafia. She is valued for her ability to go unnoticed and thus becomes the ears and eyes of Mr. Salvatici, her benefactor. 

All good things must come to an end, or in this case, the mafia life can send a girl running, especially when she has a bullet hole or two in her side. Alice and $50,000 catch a cross-country train after she narrowly escapes with her life hanging in threads. She luckily makes acquaintance with one of the train porters named Max. Because of Max and his connections to the Paragon Hotel in Portland, Oregon, and its resident doctor, Dr. Pendleton, Alice lives. The Paragon Hotel is an all-black establishment in Portland, and Max and Dr. Pendleton fit its requirements for residence. Alice does not, but she is allowed to stay and recover from her wounds. 

It seems Alice has gone from one city’s terrors to another, as she quickly learns that Portland and Oregon are staunchly pro-white population and decidedly anti-black. The Ku Klux Klan has moved quite visibly into the area under the guise of "a political rallying tool and a charitable club," and most of the white population is happy to accept that lie. As Alice becomes closer and closer to those at the Paragon Hotel, she understands the precarious position people of color hold in the community and just how brutal the Klan is in its dealing with them. When a mulatto child who lives at the hotel goes missing and the black community searches for him, racism quickly escalates into a fight for survival. Alice is clearly on the side of her hotel friends and uses her chameleon skills honed in New York to aid in their struggle and search, but there are secrets among the friends that prove dangerous to their safety. 

So it is that readers have another brilliant book from Lyndsay Faye. There may be equals, but there are none better at weaving words into such a mesmerizing flow. She has a command over the language and its use that makes a reader giddy with satisfaction, each word hitting its mark. For those of us who get tingles when a phrase is turned just so, reading this book is an experience of mind tingling delight. One of the things I most loved about The Paragon Hotel and its main character Alice “Nobody” James is the witty dialogue. The art of quick and clever repartee is something author Lyndsay Faye’s writing has always been well versed in, and readers will enjoy Alice's retorts for their engaging smartness. 

Fans of Lyndsay Faye will be thrilled with The Paragon Hotel, and new readers will be so enthralled that they will quickly be scrambling to read all her previous works, too.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review

WWI had a devastating effect on England’s population of young men, and with the flu epidemic right on its heels, fewer and fewer men were available to work the farms, run businesses, and follow in their father’s footsteps. It was an unprecedented time of loss and change for all, during the war and after. Young women who had previously been in well-defined roles according to their class in society found themselves coming together to fill the void on farms, in industry, in family-owned businesses, and as medical personnel both on the battlefields and in the hospitals. And, with the blurring of societal lines came a new independence for women, though not all of it was by choice. It is into this vortex of change that Rhys Bowen drops readers, into a story where one woman goes from coddled to scrambling to survive. The Victory Garden is that rare look inside the crumbling of an ordered world where the rules were set and adhered to, with everyone having a predetermined role, to a world where coming together to defeat an enemy brought people in contact who would never have met or interacted before. The heartbreak of so many fine young men dying and leaving widows and girlfriends and children behind forced a new way of thinking that only the young could fully embrace, but to survive and thrive embrace it they did.

Emily Bryce has just turned twenty-one in 1918, and she is champing at the tight bit her parents have held her in during the Great War’s ravaging of England’s human and other resources. She longs to be a nurse at the front like her best friend Clarissa, but she knows that her parents, after losing their son in France, couldn’t bear it. Emily meets an Australian pilot who is convalescing from injuries in a house next door, and he encourages her to strike out on her own and do her part, if she so desires. She does so desire and, against her parents’ wishes, she signs up where she is most needed, as a “land girl,” helping out farmers plant, harvest, milk cows, slop pigs, and any other task the young men of the country used to do. Staying in a central housing arrangement with other land girls, Emily gets to know and appreciate women from different walks of life. She also has opportunity to visit her Australian, Robbie Kerr, who has been moved to a hospital near her boarding house. Before Robbie gets sent back to the front, he proposes to Emily and she joyfully accepts. Another aspect of the war, love on a fast track.

While Robbie is back in the air fighting the Germans, Emily receives an assignment to attend to the grounds of an old Devonshire family estate. She and two other girls, with whom she’s become friends, are happy to have a place of their own to stay and work for a while in a storybook setting of undiminished beauty. All three young women quickly feel comfortable in the small village, and Emily especially feels a connection when she finds the journal of a former occupant of the stone cottage in which they reside. The journal and herb garden attached to the cottage provide purpose and strength when Emily is faced with devastating news and no longer has a home to which she can return after her land girl duties are over. The war has left her with an uncertain future and a growing responsibility. The locals allude to the ghosts of the stone cottage in which she resides, curses upon its inhabitants, and Emily comes to learn that those whispers must be addressed if she is to have a chance of creating a new home for herself and her child.

The Victory Garden is already a top favorite of my reads this year and in overall reading. Rhys Bowen captures the tragedies and hardships of the English people during WWI on a level of realism that places the reader in the minds and hearts of those struggling on the home front. Readers are connected to the characters through the characters’ thoughts, actions, and dialogue that move the story along a path of intense impact. Although not a history book, The Victory Garden provides those revelations not shared in the truncated events presented in a textbook, the effects of those events on people. Following Emily Bryce’s story makes the sorrow relatable. She is a brilliantly created character, as are those who play supporting roles. Rhys Bowen has always given us exceptionally special characters, ones we become invested in. The Victory Garden is my favorite stand-alone by this author thus far, and I so hope she continues to write tales about the people who lived through the war to end all wars and the one that followed that.

I received an advanced reader’s copy of The Victory Garden, and I’ve given it an honest review.

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Stone Circle (Ruth Galloway #11) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

The 11th Ruth Galloway book, The Stone Circle, may be the most perfect book in the series. Author Elly Griffiths has stolen my heart all over again with this tale. Set in Ruth’s home turf, or home marsh, this story takes us back full circle to where it all began in Crossing Places. With the Saltmarsh and Erik Anderssen and missing children and dead children and Ruth and Nelson working a case together and Cathbad the Druid involved. The very roots of this series guide this story, with ghosts of the past looming large. Truths are faced with the pain of a decade dancing around them. But, although truths are acknowledged, there is so much more story and honesty yet to deal with and look forward to. While some things are resolved, others have been opened to resolution. Elly Griffiths has given her fans a reward of immense proportions in this book. And, how lucky are those who are just beginning this series, to know that a book bringing things full circle is to be found in book eleven. Again, it’s not an ending, but a new beginning built on all the stories of the past. Only Elly Griffiths could weave a tapestry of Ruth’s story so magnificently. Trust this creator of Ruth to know where the paths must wind. If you’re trying to read between the lines in what I’ve said here, don’t. There is so much to discover in this book, and I won’t say anything to spoil the journey for others. 

As often happens in the Ruth Galloway stories, the ancient, the old, and the new all come together. A new dig is in progress at the Saltmarsh near Ruth’s house, and, being the resident forensic archeology expert, Ruth is called in to examine the ancient bones of a young girl found at the Bronze Age site. It would be a routine job, except for the person heading the dig is Leif Anderssen, Erik Anderssen’s son. With the tragic circumstances surrounding Erik, who had been Ruth’s teacher and mentor, and the salt marsh, it’s an emotional meeting for Ruth when she discovers Leif is in charge. Then, DCI Harry Nelson starts receiving letters like the ones Erik had sent him in Ruth’s and Nelson’s first heartbreaking case, and it seems the ghost of Eric is very much present. When bones of another young girl, ones from a more recent past, are discovered by Ruth at the dig, déjà vu places her and Nelson directly in its crosshairs. They find themselves back where they came into one another’s lives, working on a case involving a child and confronting their eerie history with the Saltmarsh, as well as their personal history. 

The recent burial of bones at the dig site are connected to a thirty-five-year-old cold case, where a young girl went missing during a town-wide celebration of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spenser’s wedding in July of 1981. Now, in 2016, the identification of the bones as the missing girl reveals her fate and launches the police into a murder investigation. Suspects were few concerning Margaret Lacey’s disappearance, and alibis were tight. With Ruth’s help in ascertaining what the girl’s bones have to say, DCI Nelson and his Serious Crimes Unit of Judy, Clough, and Tanya are determined to find justice for Margaret and closure for her family. There will be many theories and many thrilling twists before anyone finds peace from this nightmare. 

To the delight of all readers of this series, Cathbad is quite visible in the book. His past connection to Erik is of interest to Leif, Erik’s son, and Leif has his own hidden agenda with Cathbad and Ruth. The ghost of Erik is indeed strong and far-reaching.  And, no, I haven’t forgotten the new character we've all been on pins and needles to meet, Michelle's baby. Well, I can tell you now that the baby is born. That’s all you get. I wouldn’t dream of being the bearer of news about the baby’s paternity or other details.

I read lots of great stories/books, and each is unique is what touches me. Sometimes it’s the characters or the setting or the gripping story line or a special meaning to something in my life or experience. The Stone Circle is such a complete source of satisfaction for me; it checks all the boxes. I have seldom been invested in a character like I am Ruth Galloway. She is the character in my reading that I’d most like to meet and be friends with. Her strength and resiliency make everyone’s world around her a better place, without them or her ever realizing it. Her daughter Kate, DCI Nelson, Cathbad, Judy, and Cloughie are also favorite characters who can delight, frustrate, and inspire me, too. Elly Griffiths is genius at creating such memorable characters with whom the reader becomes staunchly invested. These characters are family to fans, and we simply care deeply for them. The setting of Norfolk is as down to Earth as it gets, but the Saltmarsh is magical beyond understanding. And, like the Saltmarsh is to Ruth, this series is to me.

I received an advanced reader’s copy of The Stone Circle, and my honest review is but a humble attempt at discussing how much I enjoyed it. This book makes me want to read the whole series again. Pre-order so you don’t have to wait a minute longer than necessary to read it. Out February 5th in the UK and May 7th in the U.S.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Reading Room Ruminations: Watching You by Lisa Jewell

After staying up all night reading Lisa Jewel's Watching You, I had to ask myself why I hadn't read any Lisa Jewel books before. This author knows how to keep a story moving, resulting in the reader trying in vain to find a stopping point to carry out other activities, like sleep. If ever the word "gripping" should be applied to a tale, it's the very apposite of descriptors for Watching You. I've been trying to get to some authors who are new to me, and Lisa Jewel is the second such author who has struck a perfect chord with my reading tastes. Shari Lapena is the other new author I've recently connected with through her latest book An Unwanted Guest. Their stories also contain the similarity of multiple main characters to keep up with, and both are brilliant at the clarity of those characters and avoiding confusion. And, both books have two of my favorite covers from 2018 publications.

Watching You begins with a prologue. I happen to be a reader who loves a well written prologue, and this one is that. You know immediately, through this prologue, that a murder has occurred in one of the "painted" houses in Melville Heights, one of the most sought after addresses in Bristol, England. But, we don't know who the victim is and certainly not why that person has ended up lying in a pool of blood on their kitchen floor. The characters who steer this story are from two camps, those who live in two of the houses in this prestigious area and a teenage girl and her mother who live just outside the coveted address. The mentally unstable mother sees pretty much all that goes on in the neighborhood, as she's suffers from paranoia that they are out to get her, but she's not the only one watching people there. It's a neighborhood rife with secrets and possibilities of a person who would kill to keep a secret. Joey Mullen, a resident of one of the painted houses, lives in her brother's (a doctor) and wife's house with Joey's hastily married husband. Joey seems to be one of the major catalysts for action, but is she? Her actions certainly create a right mess of cat and mouse with her equally married neighbor. People seem to be playing parts that cover their true selves, and it's delightfully difficult to discern who will win the prize for the biggest secret, the one that leads to murder.

Pick a night or a day when you are in one of those waiting jobs, such as having plumbing work done or being without your car because it's in the shop. Or maybe not a waiting day, maybe a day when you are treating yourself to a pajama day of only doing something you want to do. Then, pick up Watching You and have a gobsmacking good read.