Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic's in Vogue in The Dressmaker

I have to admit, I don't know why I would pick up The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott, beside it using Titanic as a jumping off point for its plot.   As a lifelong Titanic enthusiast, I guess I was compelled, much as I have been in the past, to see what historical threads an author or filmmaker chooses to weave into his or her fictional narrative.

I have to admit, I kept going every time historical facts bumped up against fictional narrative.  Alcott's story revolves around Tess Collins, an aspiring seamstress, who just happens to have the good fortune to be hired by Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon as a maid just before they embark at Southampton for Titanic's maiden voyage.   Lady Duff Gordon, or the haute courtier Lucille as she is also known, is renowned for her trendsetting fashion designs, and Duff Gordon, haughty and pretentious, quickly becomes drawn to the young Tess, ultimately choosing to mentor her.  In the course of the voyage, Collins meets up with a kindly sailor and midwestern tycoon, both of whom become romantic suitors later in the plot.

In some ways, I felt as if I was reading a historical trainwreck.   Something so wrong but something so compelling - almost as if witnessing a disaster in itself.  Don't get me wrong, Alcott pens a compelling piece of historical fiction, but I kept being jarred by it bumping up against historical reality.  When the disaster occurs, the Duff Gordons abandon ship - just as they did historically - in a sparesly filled lifeboat.   The recriminations upon rescue, in the press and in societal circles, test the young dressmaker's loyalty to Lady Duff Gordon and drives the remainder of the plot.

Don't read The Dressmaker for an accurate account of the Titanic disaster.  Although nearly citing the transcripts of both American and British inquiries into the disaster verbatim, this is not one for the historical record.  But if you enjoy a pleasantly compelling and well paced of historic fiction that just happens to be set in the era of the early 20th Century, The Dressmaker might be something to interest you.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Defending Jacob by William Landay

Defending Jacob by William Landay is as much a mystery/legal thriller as it is a family drama.  Andy Barber is a district attorney in Newton, MA, a largely upscale inclusive community.  He is one of the first people called to a murder scene in which a 14 year old boy is stabbed three times and left for dead in the woods.  There are few clues and even fewer suspects.  While Andy insists on investigating a neighborhood pedophile for the crime, he is soon pulled from the case when his son Jacob becomes the lead suspect and charged with the murder.  Andy is adamant throughout the novel that Jacob is innocent.  However, Jacob’s actions and character are disturbing enough to place doubt in the minds of the town and Jacob’s own mother, Laurie.  The family dynamics is an integral part of the story.  Laurie’s doubts stem from Andy’s admission of a history of violence in his family - murder and rape - neither of which Laurie previously knew.  Did Jacob inherit a “murder gene”?  And if so, what does that say about Laurie’s parenting?  If Jacob did commit the murder could she have prevented it?  These questions haunt Laurie and send her spiraling down a destructive path.
I highly recommend this novel.  The legal procedures are described in such a way that you feel you’re actually in the courtroom with the characters.  And the surprise ending will shock you (it did me, even though I knew there had to be a twist, I still didn’t see it coming!).

~ Linette

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Formula Seems Off in the Devil's Elixir

I'm a big fan of Raymond Khoury's novels.   In The Devil's Elixir, Khoury returns to his series focusing on FBI Agent Sean Riley (begun in The Templar Legacy and continued in The Templar Salvation), this time with a story blending 1700s Mexico with present day drug traffickers.
The book is a page turner, with Riley leaping from one action sequence (if this were a film, they'd be called "set pieces") to another;  there's character development of his protagonist and love Tess Chaykin; the villain is ruthless and suitably menacing; and there's plenty of factual detail that fans of Khoury (not to mention of Steve Berry and Brad Thor) will relish too.  But there's something missing - or maybe a new ingredient weakens the mix.

While mysticism and magic have undergirded Khoury's earlier works, that element in The Devil's Elixir seems far more improbable than in in past books.   The resolution to this novel, while intermixed with all the successful elements Khoury has blended before, just felt a little too far fetched and too far removed from the realism he otherwise paints.

Not a bad read by any means, but definitely not one of my favorites.   Of course, I'll be eager to see what he has in store for us next, but this elixir just was not as palatable as his previous brews.

Reagan Down, But Not Out

There's surprisingly little written solely on the topic of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Del Quentin Wilber's Rawhide Down attempts to fill that void, depicting from start to finish the events that surrounded the shooting of the President on March 30, 1981  Just weeks into his first term, the President was nearly fatally wounded when loner John Hinckley fired on him, wounding four people, outside a Washington D.C. hotel.   While Wilber's prose succinctly traces the events that led up to Hinckley's attempt on Reagan's life, the book is moreso seemingly a minute-by-minute account of the shooting, the actions of the Secret Service, the heroic effort doctors made to save Reagan.   Amid the chaos of the event, historic figures are brought to life with colorful detail in Wilber's narrative.   With a senior White House staff stumbling, the media pressing hard to confirm facts, and heart wrenching accounts of the doctors' efforts to save both Reagan and the believed to be mortally wounded press secretary James Brady - the most vivid portrait to emerge is that of the wounded Reagan, who, Wilber argues, was made more human and - therefore - a more identifiable figure in the eyes of the American people.   A page turner from start to finish, Rawhide Down is compelling, detailed history whose story flows with ease. -Michael

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thor's "Lions" Roar

Author Brad Thor seems to tear his thrillers from the news headlines, and his first thriller, The Lions of Lucerne, which follows former SEAL turned Secret Service Agent Scot Harvath on a quest to find the kidnapped President of the United States, roars to life.  Globetrotting in its adventures, with great detail to attention, and a shockingly plausible plot, readers who enjoy Steve Berry and James Rollins's novels will no doubt find interest in Thor.

Harvath is a compelling protagonist and this debut adventure starts a series of novels featuring the character.   Thor imbues his character with realism and grounds his story in technical details and facts that are the result of thorough research.

If you're looking for a contemporary, page turner of a thriller, pick up Lions and you may find yourself compelled to read more than one of Thor's thrillers.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

In honor of Veterans Day this past weekend, I would like to recommend "Matterhorn" by Marine Corps veteran Karl Marlantes. "Matterhorn" is based on Marlantes' experiences as a young platoon leader in Vietnam. 30 years in the making, Marlantes' intense story of a young man's abrupt transformation from innocent, All-American boy to battle-hardened and tortured veteran not only brilliantly describes the hardships his rifle platoon had to endure in the jungle and the brotherhood that forms between men in the absurdity of combat, but also brings up the incompetence and ruthlessness of a handful of high-ranking officers who will gladly sacrifice their men to further their own goals. In its senselessness, the battle for (fictitious) fire support base Matterhorn reminds of Hamburger Hill and Korea's Pork Chop Hill, putting in question the meaning of war, of leadership, and, ultimately, of life and death. While there are many novels about the Vietnam War, Marlantes' account is especially haunting: its authenticity and intensity will draw your heart and mind into the jungle to vicariously experience the fear and exhilaration of combat, to suffer through the heat, the diseases, deprivations, and the loss of lives and, thus, will give you a glimpse of what it really is that we have been asking our young men and women to endure since times eternal.

~ Andrea Galbusieri

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sibling Rivalry takes Center Stage in Book about Lincoln Assassin

Having read, seemingly not too long ago, Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis by James Swanson, I have to admit I was a little bit reluctant to pick up another book with significant focus on John Wilkes Booth, who has to be the most well-known of the American Presidential assassins. While I'm fascinated with the Lincoln Presidency, there's something unseemly to me about spending too much time paying attention to the man who took his life.

But there was something compelling about the cover of My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy by Nora Titone that led me to pick it up. Almost anyone with a passing history knows that Lincoln's assassin was an actor whose sympathies lied with the Confederate cause. What many may not realize is that Booth came from a long line of distinguished actors, of which his brother Edwin was his greatest rival. This hook drew me into yet another book where John Wilkes takes center stage.

Titone's narrative doesn't focus on the assassination; she attempts to spell out John Wilkes Booth's motives, but the story is more about about the legacy of renowned actor Junius Brutus Booth, whose offspring dominated the American stage in the mid-19th Century. John Wilkes is portrayed as being in the shadow of his brother Edwin, whose talent led him to dominate the stage throughout the country. That domination led Edwin to parse out parts of the country which his siblings could ply their trade. John Wilkes, readers won't be surprised to find out, spent considerable time in the South.

Rather than focus on a tried and true historical narrative, Titone's decision to frame the story of the eventual assassin through the frame of sibling rivalry is clever. Along the way, readers learn considerable about theatre in the mid-1800s, and about the other actors and actresses whose paths cross the famous Booth siblings. The book is littered with fascinating figures, patrons of the arts and performers. The role of Our American Cousin producer Laura Keene - the comedy that Lincoln attended that April night at Ford's Theatre - is particularly interesting.

If you're looking for a slightly different approach to the Lincoln assassination, you might find this a good read. The Booth family is a compelling bunch, making this more than one more familiar account of the assassin's story.