Saturday, June 19, 2010


It’s hard for me to put my finger on one thing that sets Tana French’s novels apart from others of the “police procedural” genre. It’s a combination of a lot of things: less CSI-like detail, and a lot more psychological insight; a moving back story with quirky, touching relationships; flawed protagonists; an exquisite eye for detail; and a fast, punchy writing style that builds suspense quickly and holds there. She gives us superb plotting, and as an American, I’m just knocked out by the dialogue.

Is that enough superlatives for you? It’s honestly hard to get them all in. Tana French burst onto the scene with THE WOODS in 2007 for which she won the Edgar Award. She followed that with THE LIKENESS in 2008. which was selected by as the Best Book of the Year. And the list of awards goes on. As it should.

Ms. French’s books are linked by characters working for the Dublin Murder squad. FAITHFUL PLACE focuses on Frank Mackey, who readers will remember as Cassie Maddox’s mentor in THE LIKENESS. Frank works in Undercover, which makes the case more fascinating, because this book is almost all psychological, without any of the forensic elements of most murder investigations. Frank also has to protect his undercover status throughout, so he is the shadow investigator, never having official status on the case. He works behind the scenes for a number of reasons.

Twenty-two years ago Frank was to meet his love, Rosie Daly, to leave Ireland behind and start a new life in England. Rosie did not show up, leaving instead a note, asking him to understand why she needed to go. Frank waited the night, then started walking, and never looked back. Now he gets a call from his sister telling him that Rosie’s suitcase has been found behind the chimney in a derelict house at the top of Faithful Place, the street he grew up on. It looks like Rosie may not have left for England after all. Frank is once again in the middle of the family, the neighborhood, and the life he promised himself never to return to. Even worse, now his daughter is involved, and may be in danger herself.

Frank is a wounded soul…bitter about Rosie’s desertion, ashamed of his origins, furious at his father’s drunken brutality, and at war with his brother Shay. He does care for his other siblings, particularly his sister Jackie, and younger brother Kevin. He has an awkwardly sweet relationship with his ex-wife, and one of the most adorable father-daughter relationships I’ve ever read. He is isolated from his fellow cops by the nature of his job, and well, by his nature. It’s the tangle of all these relationship that are the heart of the story of what happened to Rosie Daly.

FAITHFUL PLACE is one of those books you will not want to put down once you have started in, so schedule your reading for a nice restful weekend. Or better yet, buy all three books and take them to the beach with you. Bring lots and lots of sunscreen.

Publisher: Viking Adult (July 13, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0670021871
To Buy This Book

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CAPTIVITY by Deborah Noyes

Captivity is one of those books that you find maybe once, or if you are lucky, twice a year. A haunting story, exquisite writing, compelling characters, and a really interesting plot question. In this case, did the Fox sisters have a gift, or was it a hoax?

The story centers around a true incident in western New York in 1848: two sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox claimed that the dead were trying to communicate with them through poltergeist activity and “rapping”. A dig in their basement turns up the body of a peddler who had died years before, as predicted by the girls. A move to Rochester, to their older sister Leah’s home (and management) soon turns them into a sensation, and creates the birth of the American Spiritualist movement. Despite a number of grueling and humiliating tests, the sisters are never revealed as frauds.

The middle sister, Maggie, is bold, fresh, and extremely likable. She strikes up a friendship of sorts with a local recluse, Clara Gill, and through their friendship the story unfolds. The sister’s story is told going forward, Clara’s is told in flashbacks.

Clara was living in London some twenty-odd years ago, illustrating a naturalist catalog with sketches of animals when she fell deeply in love with the “beast keeper” of the London Tower’s Menagerie. Will Cross is absolutely charming, and irresistible for a carefully brought up young Victorian lady: unsuitable, of course, full of poetry, life, and laughter. He is self-educated, and as exotic as the animals he loves. Their love story is as tender and awkward as every first love and every bit as moving. Anyone who has ever loved and lost can understand Clara’s withdrawal from the world when in ends terribly.

Captivity is very much the theme here. The animals of the menagerie are captives, of course. Will is a “beast keeper” and she a naturalist. She asks him “does it pain you? To see them here?” “Here with me” he says cheerily, “They might be here anyway. They might be here without me”……”They’re going to be shut up anyway” he explains. the world runs it’s course.” But it is her uncle and his naturalist friends who serve the exotic animals at a dinner designed to raise money to study and collect them. They gobble up the very thing they claim to prize. A point that is not missed by Clara. The freedom of birds too, echoes throughout the book: Maggie’s love gives her a canary in a golden cage when he asks her to give up her “rapping” to marry him. She frees it, and he sends it back, saying that he had caught it again. An interesting touch of metaphor in that this bird is a bit of a fraud. Clara sketches birds repeatedly. Maggie gives Clara a nest with a girls hair ribbon in it. Will’s mentor is a gypsy seller of “nesties”.

Clara is a captive of her love, and her past. She has barely left her room in 22 years despite her father’s quiet appeals to do so. She only starts going out when Maggie enters her life and she becomes curious again. Maggie is a captive of her “gift”, her mercenary family, and her need to better herself. And of her own love when he comes along.

Woven throughout the story is the question of the Fox sisters “gifts”. Do they really communicate with spirits? Is it a hoax? Noyes slyly teases and provokes without giving too much away. Maggie loves to drop hints, and Katie seems to actually be a mystic, while Leah is openly mercenary. And if they are fraudulent, are they giving hope or doing harm? And how to they make the rapping/poltergeist activity happen? These are questions the reader must answer for him/herself. It’s a fascinating puzzle.

I highly recommend Captivity. I knew any book about the Fox sisters would be interesting. To this day the controversy continues as to whether they were fact or fraud. I did not expect the tender love story at the heart of the book. Clara is such a wonderful combination of fragile and strong that you just can’t help caring deeply for her. Deborah Noyes has the ability to make all of this very real with a delicate, ethereal beauty. She perfectly captures mood, description and the poetry of love. A marvelous writer. A marvelous book.

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Unbridled Books; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1936071630

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Zephyr, the Boibiczer Prodigy, is surely one of the most charming characters ever to grace the pages of a book. And the story line of this novel is as delightfully unexpected as its characters.

The story begins when young Bernie Karp of Memphis, TN comes across the body of a rabbi frozen in a block of ice beneath the pot roasts and chickens in his family freezer.

When he asks his father why they have a dead man in their freezer, his father replies that the dead man is a family heirloom: “Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition,”. Completely intrigued, Bernie is delighted when a power outage frees the old tzaddik, and hides him in the rumpus room for several weeks. These weeks are important for each of them. Bernie quickly learns the mystical Rabbi’s secrets, while the Rabbi obsessively watches TV and learns about the modern world. One observation: “ If a man to other men will sell his wife, is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?”

Through a series of flashbacks, it emerges that the rabbi, who lived in the village of Boibicz in1889, was in the habit of meditating near a small lake. While meditating, the holy man would leave his body and commune with the angels and God. While out of his body one day, a dreadful flood filled the area, and the body of the Rabbi was lost. A few years later, an ice cutter and his son found the Rabbi sleeping peacefully under the ice. His followers, in a flurry of indecision over his mortality, cut the block of ice from the lake and kept it in the local icehouse, run by Bernie’s ancestors.

While the block of ice and Bernie’s family travel through time, war, pograms and countries, always caring for their icebound charge, the modern story continues. The Rabbi, now thoroughly modernized, creates a New House of Enlightenment and almost overnight becomes a spiritual celebrity. Bernie, on the other hand, embraces the Rabbi’s old Jewish mysticism and starts leaving his body, often at inconvenient times. The kids at his school take advantage of this, and take to stuffing him in lockers, etc. until he is befriended by another loner, Lou Ella. Then his out-of-body experiences become inconvenient for another reason: “If you can’t take me with you, at least bring me something back”. The moral dilemma of the book comes from Bernie’s deepening faith as the Rabbi becomes a spiritual con artist. Yet Bernie believes in the old man, despite appearances. And in the end, they are united in a bizarre twist.

Funny’ absurd, and whimsical: of course. Full of Jewish history and traditions: naturally. Moving and often profound: sometime surprisingly. I loved Bernie’s family, and why each took on the care of the terribly inconvenient frozen charge. This is an absolute charmer of a book, and often asks some hard questions of faith. I haven’t read Steve Stern before, and that is an oversight I intend to rectify immediately

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Algonquin Books (May 11, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1565126190

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Purely by coincidence, (or….was it? insert maniacal laugher here ) I read these two fascinating studies of witchcraft and politics back to back. Although set nearly a century apart, and in different continents, they make terrific companion pieces. Both are works of fiction, set against real events, and ask the question “What if the witches, hanged at Salem and elsewhere, and long presumed innocent victims of hysteria and superstition; what if at least some of them really were witches?”

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt, is the story of a true incident in Lancashire, England during the 16th century. A family of “cunning women”, or Blessers, is accused of witchcraft in order to further the ambitions of a nobleman. The protagonist of the story is Elizabeth Demdyke, who lives during a time when doctors/barbers bled the humours out of starving patients, midwives put knives under beds to cut the pain of child birth, and life expectancy of a nobleman was about 42 years old. A noblewoman was lucky to make 30 after 10 or so pregnancies.

And Elizabeth and her family were no noblemen. Keeping starvation and homelessness at bay were the task of the entire family, and they did what they had to to survive. Bess discovered early on that she had a gift for blessing animals well, potions, and healing. Aided in this by her spirit friend, Tibb, she keeps strictly to light magicks, and wholesome arts. Until the day she is begged by her dearest and oldest friend, Anne, to help her protect her daughter from the son of the local landlord. With no protection, no rights, and no justice, the women do what they must. But the taste of power goes to Anne’s head, and she and Bess part ways over Anne’s dark path.

Bess’s granddaughter Alizon, is the narrator for the latter half of the book. All her life she has run from her families gift, and she lives in terror that Anne’s malice, or her brother’s lunacy will expose the family to ruin. In a time when practicing Catholicism is a capitol crime, her family’s adherence to the old religion is enough to see them hung, never mind the whispers that hang about the two families like a miasma. When Alizon loses her temper and shouts at a local peddler, resulting in a stroke, the innocent suffer with the guilty when the local landowner steps in to curry favor with the devoutly Protestant King James.

Mary Sharratt brings these characters to life in their flawed, sympathetic, bawdy, rich, colorful detail. I particularly like the names of the familiar spirits of the witches: Tibb, Fancy, Ball. The vivid glimpse of a maypole dance in rural England; the dark, heavy glare from the pulpit of the Reformed Faith, eager for the scent of the old religion’s idolatry and incense. The powerlessness of starvation; when parents feed their children mud so they can sleep with a belly that feels full. Who is guilty in such a world? And who is truly innocent?

Beautifully written, a story of tragedy and misused power, I highly recommend Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Oh, and as an amusing aside…while recovering from a migraine the other night, and channel surfing, I heard the name “Elizabeth Demdyke” coming from the television. I found the station again only to discover that the British Spook Show “Most Haunted” is claiming to be followed around by the “Pendle Witches”, featuring Elizabeth Demdyke. On this episode, she had apparently followed them to Wales. Odd coincidence, that.  The old girl really gets around.

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-13: 978-0-547-06967-8

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane by
Katherine Howe

Connie Goodman is a graduate student at Harvard working on her thesis in American Colonial History. As she searches for the subject of her thesis, she come across the name Deliverance Dane, and gradually comes to realize that Deliverance is one of the Salem Witches, thus far undocumented in history. As the mystery unravels, Connie finds herself drawn into the past in a very real way through visions. Fascinated, Connie goes on to discover that Deliverance is a distant relation to her. And that Connie herself may have inherited some of the gifts that Deliverance, Connie’s grandmother, and mother share. As Connie’s powers grow, so does her ability to sense those who do not have her best interests at heart. Eventually Connie’s search leads her to the search for the grimoire, or the “Physick Book”, the book of recipes, Deliverance handed down to her family as the key to understand the mystery.

A very sweet and tender love story also develops with the story of Deliverance Dane. A local steeplejack named Sam helps Connie solve the mystery and face down the danger that the search for the Physick Book brings. Connie’s mother, an endless source of irritation for Connie, also becomes a source of inspiration as the pieces fall in place.

An interesting note about the author, Katherine Howe, is that she herself is the descendant of two of the accused Salem Witches: Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the panic, and Elizabeth Howe, who was condemned.. She is a gifted writer who brings the past alive in a way that makes it just as real as the present. The two existed side by side in a natural, although mystical, way. Howe has the historian’s fine eye for detail, and brings the 17th century world of woman alive with wry humor; her characters are bold, fresh, and just plain likeable.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane is Katherine Howe’s debut novel, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. I predict a brilliant literary career ahead.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe
Hyperion Books
IBSN: 978-1-4013-4133-6