Friday, July 9, 2021

Castle Shade by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review


“Shadowy figures, vague whispers, the fears of girls, dangers that may be only accidents. But this is a land of long memory and hidden corners, a land that had known Vlad the Impaler, a land from whose churchyards the shades creep.” 

Unless it’s that certain time of year, where the ghouls and ghosts are celebrated, you probably won’t find fiction books thematically linked to the Dracula tale grouped together in a library or bookstore. Being a reader who loves a good theme and enjoys a well-written Dracula connected book, I would like to see such a grouping on a permanent basis. I adore different takes on the Dracula theme, but I am especially fascinated by those that are uniquely clever. Castle Shade by Laurie R. King is that. Mixing history, Queen Marie of Romania, with the atmosphere of Transylvania appeals to my love of history and legend combined, and the sleuthing of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes is a thrilling treat.

But, don’t imagine that Castle Shade is a vampire story; it’s not. However, it is very much about the folklore and myths surrounding that tale, how the local people are rather easily swayed to believe in the possibility of a darkness that seeks out the blood of young women. And, this story is set in Romania, with Castle Bran being the summer residence of Queen Marie and where Russell and Holmes are visiting. Readers of this series will remember that Holmes had traveled to Romania by himself when Russell was in Monte Carlo pursuing Mrs. Hudson. Now, Russell is accompanying Holmes back to the area of Romania known as Transylvania (I wonder how many people can read that name and not say it in their heads as Dracula pronounces it). They are there at the request of Queen Marie, beloved Queen of Romania and granddaughter to the iconic Queen Victoria of England. Queen Marie has received a threat that involves possible harm to her youngest daughter Ileana, a girl still in her teens. It is this, the danger to a young girl, that has Russell and Holmes eager to help find answers quickly. But, they must also be surreptitious in their mission, as the Queen wants to keep it quiet, so they are presented as architectural consultants in the ongoing work being done to Castle Bran. 

The threatening letter is one mysterious occurrence, but there are others, including rumors of witches and ghosts and lurking shadows. Something or someone is stirring the pot, so to speak, and they are doing so only when Queen Marie is in residence at the castle, thus hoping villagers will connect the dots to Her Highness. A quick solution is needed before the tide turns against Marie. Villagers in Brasov are already hanging garlic in their doorways. 

Russell and Holmes are at first leaning toward a political explanation to the troubling events, as Queen Marie has been an amazingly effective leader while her husband is in failing health. They think that there might be those wishing her to be a less popular and distracted Queen to push agendas of their own. The political angle also has Russell suspecting that Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother, is responsible for their involvement, something that does not sit well with Mary Russell. But, the welfare of the young princess is more important than Russells' grievances, and, as they investigate and uncover clues, the political culprit seems less likely and personal revenge more likely. 

As per usual, Russell and Holmes don’t waste any time getting right on the case. The two outfit themselves for stealth in their black clothing on the very night they arrive and go cautiously about the village, looking for the unusual to happen. And, happen it does, as the sharp eyes of the pair discover an attempt to poison someone’s chickens and the deliberate placement of a witch’s hex bag on a local's front doorway path. Undoing these attempts to stir up the locals puts Holmes and Russell in control of the narrative, but it will require constant vigilance to maintain that control. When the misdeeds take a new direction of harm to a person, the urgency increases to find the way through the darkness and save lives. Hold on to your hats because the chase gets wild and woolly, including a premature burial experience. 

There are several suspects considered by Russell and Holmes, and I was able to see a case for each of their guilt. But, I was surprised by the actual villain and the reason for wanting to drive Queen Marie away from Castle Bran. Laurie King does a good job of presenting red herrings while leading readers to the miscreant. I’m rather torn between thinking Russell showed great bravery and thinking she took some questionable risks. However, I am more convinced than ever that Mary Russell is a match indeed for the wily Sherlock Holmes. She is continuing to grow in her confidence, and Holmes is realizing that she is growing and their partnership and marriage is shifting. There will be issues to address in the near future. 

Atmospheric is a word that often gets thrown around in describing books set in the countryside of Transylvania, but it is so brilliantly accomplished by King in Castle Shade that it must be noted in my review. The author has such a beautiful command of words in her description of the area and its inhabitants in achieving the spectra of darkness looming over the luscious gardens of the Queen. It’s the atmosphere created that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and believing that anything is possible. 

I was delighted with the seventeenth book in the Russell and Holmes series. Castle Shade satisfied my love of historical connections in my fiction reading with the interspersing of Romanian history after WWI ended and the tale of how Queen Marie came to be Queen of Romania and an enormous asset to her adopted land. I’m always pleased when my fictional reading takes me to seek out more information about the real people and places in the story. And, as crime/mystery is my favorite genre of fiction, the cases that Russell and Holmes pursue continue to thrill me. I highly recommend Castle Shade, and I believe it can be read as a stand-alone, which is a great bonus. Laurie King is a true weaver of tales, who never lets a thread slip, and oh what fascinating threads they are.  

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal: Reading Room Review


Coming from an educator’s background, I can say, with some assurance, that students learn a great deal from reading fiction. And, if I could implement one tool for learning and retaining history, it would be reading more historical fiction in a school’s curriculum. Stories are how the cultural histories and ancient histories have come to us. They are a proven means to bringing history alive and making it relevant. For so many, including me, historical fiction opens a whole new layer of knowledge about historical events or periods that weren’t in the history textbooks I studied in school. I think readers are beginning to realize more and more that our history textbooks barely scratched or scratch the surface of the whole picture. Even the history that I did learn from schools is enriched tenfold with the back-stories of the people and events told in well-researched fiction. When an historical fiction book comes along that makes you realize that you have been looking at a part of history wearing rose-colored glasses, it shakes you, and it encourages you to continue to learn more. 

Susan Elia MacNeal’s The Hollywood Spy was an eye-opener for me about our country during WWII, especially in the warm, sunny place of dreams, Hollywood, California. I knew that California was where the Japanese Americans were hit so hard, with their property being seized and their persons being sent to internment camps (prisons), but I thought that there was a more cohesive, on the same page togetherness of the American people as a whole. That Nazi and pro-Hitler ideology was embraced and acted upon by American citizens in our country during WWII was an unfamiliar fact to me before reading The Hollywood Spy. Maggie Hope becomes cognizant of an America that she is unaware of, too, as she travels from London to Hollywood on a mission of uncovering a murder.

Maggie arrives in Hollywood in July 1943 from war-torn, dreary London with high expectations of a brighter place, and on the surface, it is truly a world of wonder and magic. It’s just been a few months since readers last saw Maggie as she was struggling with major blows from her experiences as an SOE agent. After her self-destructive choice of a bomb diffusing job and risky behavior on her motorcycle, Maggie is ready to embrace a more carefree atmosphere in the golden rays of Hollywood. Of course, with America being full force in the fighting of WWII at this point, there are obvious signs of soldiers shipping out and war preparation, and Maggie has come to this place where the sun graces each day at the request of her former finance, Englishman John Sterling on a serious matter. John has suffered the loss of his current fiancĂ©e Gloria Hutton, who was found dead in the swimming pool of the hotel where she resided. John has his suspicions that it wasn’t an accidental drowning but something much more sinister, and he knows that Maggie is the perfect person to discover the truth. But, there are darker elements involved in Gloria’s death than Maggie and John can at first imagine, and Maggie is not so far from her spy days as she thinks. 

Maggie quickly learns that the people in the country where she grew up are not a united people like she thought, like the newsreels show. America’s involvement in the fighting of WWII after the Pearl Harbor attack has certainly had the effect of coming together to win the war, but the divisions between races and religions and politics seem to have widened. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, hate groups have converged into a common cause under the Ku Klux Klan to deny black citizens, including soldiers, and Jewish citizens the rights that white citizens have so long had exclusive hold on. And being 1943, America has the unyielding laws against same sex relationships, as does Britain, another kind of disenfranchisement going on that connects to the murder Maggie is trying to solve. Maggie is dismayed that segregation is a steadfast practice in this creative culture. The restaurants and clubs are divided among lines of color and sexuality, with only the “white” establishments brooking no flexibility.

While Susan Elia MacNeal presents the dark side to 1943 Los Angeles, she also includes the vibrancy of Hollywood, what makes it a gathering spot for the creative. Maggie is able to relax some and enjoy staying with her friend Sarah Sanderson, who is in Hollywood for a movie part, and even enjoy being with John again. With John working for Walt Disney on propaganda films to keep up morale and teaching flying at Howard Hughes’ airport, and with Sarah dancing for George Balanchine for a movie and getting to know some great musicians, Maggie gets to meet some of the top names in entertainment. It’s a treat for readers, too, to read about these entertainers in a setting in which they actually lived and worked. Susan Elia MacNeal always does impeccable research, so the portrayal of such notables as Walt Disney, Cab Calloway, and lesser-known Madame Alla Nazimova are soundly authentic. The Hollywood landmarks, such as the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, the Carthay Circle Theater, Schwab’s Pharmacy, Cocoanut Grove, the Dunbar Hotel, and Club Alabam are thrilling parts of the 40s Hollywood scene and image. MacNeal makes it easy to imagine being in the Chateau Marmont looking out your hotel window, as Maggie did, onto Sunset Boulevard, or listening to Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher” as the jazz-loving crowd joins in at Club Alabam. 

Susan Elia MacNeal is sure to win awards with The Hollywood Spy, the tenth book in the Maggie Hope series. The novel may be the best in this series, although I’ve loved every one of the previous nine books. I see no problem reading it as a stand-alone, too. It’s such a powerful book that you might not want to wait to read it if you’re still catching up in the series. Of course, I highly recommend readers do read the entire series. MacNeal has an uncanny ability to bring characters and setting to the feeling of personal experience for the reader. The very first book in the series, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, gave me a feeling of wartime London for the individual in a sensory connection I had never felt before. 

There is so much packed into this one book, both historically and character-wise for Maggie. It’s a brilliant author who can combine a complicated and unsavory history of WWII Hollywood with the amazing talent in the entertainment industry with the landmark physical quirks of LA/Hollywood and tie it all to a murder mystery that encompasses the danger of a clandestine enemy. There is an understanding of herself that Maggie comes to, of her place and her value that is a wonderful development to see, and a new confidence she gains. At 332 pages, The Hollywood Spy is just the right length, avoiding superfluous description but giving the reader all he/she/they deserve. I am usually a slow reader, but I flew through this book, as it flowed so perfectly from scene to scene that I found I had to keep going. The Hollywood Spy is a book that I am excited to recommend and promote. 

For this review to be a complete one, I have to mention the material contained within the covers of this book other than the story, before the story and after. The resource section at the back of the book is incredible. It not only shows the lengths to which MacNeal went to do research for this story, but it also provides readers with sources to continue their reading, something I especially want to do after reading this book. Then, there are the two quotes before the story begins, one by Hitler and one by Albert Camus. The one by Hitler talks about undermining the morale of the American people, and the one by Camus tells us that the plague lies dormant but will rise again. The application to our current crisis of hate having become bold again is an easy one to make and a disheartening reality. If history were taught with a whole-picture view, maybe we would not have to keep relearning lessons and keep fighting the same battles.