Triple Shot: The Penelopiad, Naked Heat, and The Age of Orphans

Three short reviews, because I want to clear out my backlog (8 months! Good grief.) and move forward:

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood
Canongate, 2005
New trade paperback

And we, the twelve who were later to die by his hand
At his father’s relentless command,
Sailed as well, in the dark frail boats of ourselves
Through the turbulent seas of our swollen and sore-footed mothers
Who were not royal queens, but a motley and piebald collection,
Bought, traded, captured, kidnapped from serfs and strangers.

Capsule summary: Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, from his wife’s point of view.

Capsule review: Disappointing, until the last 30 pages or so (beginning with chapter 24) when it suddenly turns amazing. The impetus for this retelling, according to Atwood’s introduction, was the execution of Penelope’s twelve handmaidens, which gets little more than a mention in the original poem. “I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids,” Atwood writes, “and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.” Unfortunately Atwood’s rendering of Penelope is so sketchy and flat that it left me unsatisfied. It isn’t until the story tackles the aftermath of the maids’ killings and the injustice dealt them by modern analyses that the full force of Atwood’s anger and reveals itself like a punch to the solar plexus:

You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Naked Heat
Richard Castle
Hyperion, 2010

“All right, fellas, I’ve got my first odd sock.” The detective’s approach to a crime scene, even one in this much disarray, was to simplify her field of view. She pared everything down to getting inside the logic of the life that was lived in that space and using that empathy to spot inconsistencies, the small thing that didn’t fit the pattern. The odd sock.

Raley and Ochoa came across the room to her. Rook adjusted his position at the perimeter to follow quietly from a distance. “Whatcha got?” asked Ochoa.

“Work space. Busy work space, right? Big newspaper columnist. Pens everywhere, pencils, custom notepads and stationery. Box of Kleenex. Look at this beside her here.” She stepped carefully around the body, still cast backward in the office chair. “A typewriter, for God’s sake. Magazines and newspapers with clippings snipped out of them, right? All that stuff makes lots of what?”

“Work,” said Raley.

“Trash,” said Rook, and Heat’s two detectives turned slightly his way and then back to Heat, unwilling to acknowledge him as part of this exchange. Like his season pass had expired.

Capsule summary: NYPD homicide detective Nikki Heat’s investigation into the murder of a prominent gossip columnist reunites her with investigative journalist Jameson Rook.

Capsule review: I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have read this if I weren’t a fan of the TV show Castle. As your standard mystery-thriller, Naked Heat is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It was an enjoyable read, a weekend well spent. The real fun in reading it, though, comes from spotting echoes of the previous season (for example: yes, “Schlemming” makes an out-of-the-blue appearance) and, if you ship Castle and Beckett like I do, reading the dedication and acknowledgements for hints to where their relationship is headed. So while someone who’s never seen Castle can easily enjoy Naked Heat and the other Nikki Heat novels, familiarity with the show adds an extra layer of meaning and pleasure to reading them.

The Age of Orphans
Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury, 2009
New trade paperback; won in “Caption This” contest from Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey

See them sleep, these sons of mine.

See them, nestled like loved ones, row after row, barrack after barrack, heads awash in the last brine of boyhood.

See them sleep, my army of sons, each suckled off a different teat and their tongues still wet with prayers to me.

See them sleep, these sons of mine, and though I am now shah, most majestic and supreme, I too was once a boy, sleeping and divine. A boy like them, beaten and bruised by the thick angry hands of a brutish baba, forced to run and hide in the folds of Maman’s belly until found again.


Now I am the notorious Commander Reza Khan, boorish and proud, a buxom beast, a king over all I see, and I let loose my two forked hooves to prance over the hearts and heads of whomever I desire. Now I am a figure, face and father. All of it once hidden in the skin of a sleeping boy who was once woken and once loved, now cast out and forever cold.

Capsule summary: A Kurdish boy is taken and raised by the Iranian army after his family is massacred. Years later, when he returns to his homeland to enforce the shah’s rule, his true self begins to re-emerge.

Capsule review: Heartbreaking, disturbing, and yet enlightening. The boy’s namelessness until the shah’s soldiers have scrubbed away his Kurd identity personalizes the repeated attempts during the 20th century to eradicate the Kurds, and the gradual renaissance of the Kurd within him when he returns to the land of his childhood embodies that people’s determination and resilience. Khadivi’s writing is forceful and poetic. I recommend The Age of Orphans to anyone with even a cursory interest in the complex cultural nexus of central Asia.


Review: Murder in Montmartre

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

Murder in Montmartre
Cara Black
Soho Press, 2006
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks

On the wide, shop-lined Boulevard de Clichy by the Moulin Rouge, its garish neon now dark, plumes of bus exhaust spiraled into the air. A straggling demonstration blocked the street as loudspeakers shouted, “Corsica for Corsicans!”

Waiting passengers stood on the pavement with that particular patience of Parisians, the collective shrug of acceptance reserved for slowdowns and strikes. Newspaper banners plastered across the kiosk read STRIKE IN CORSICAN CONTRACT DISPUTE. Another said ASSAULT ON ARMORED CURRENCY TRUCK LINKED TO ARMATA CORSA SEPARATISTS.

She saw a peeling poster on a stone wall bearing a call to action and the Armata Corsa Separatist trademark, the tête de Maure, a black face with white bandanna, in the corner.

The strident Separatist movements in Corsica took center stage these days, elbowing out Bretons demanding school instruction in Gaelic and ETA, Basque Nationalists, car bombings.

Right now Aimée needed to speak with the person in the apartment with geraniums in a window box to discover if he or she had seen anything.

One January night computer security expert and private detective Aimée Leduc attends a retirement party for a former colleague of her father’s. Before the night is through a rookie police detective, a childhood friend of Aimée’s, is accused of murdering her partner. Continue reading

Review: One Was a Soldier

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

One Was a Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2011
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks

The St. Alban’s volunteers served lunch to men in mechanic’s overalls and feed store caps, and to women headed to Fort Henry for the afternoon shift behind a cash register at the Kmart or the Stewart’s. They served the slow-moving, dignified elderly, and occasionally the young, darting around their mothers or fathers.

Clare tried to speak with as many people as she could, even if it was as brief as a greeting and a “Lord, it sure is hot today, isn’t it?” Pouring drinks, swiping spills off the tables, bringing diners seconds, she could feel her vocation reassembling around her, feel herself changing from a single recipient of God’s grace into a conduit, from someone clutching with tight fingers to someone giving away with both hands. She had long though that if Jesus were around today, he’d be feeding people at a soup kitchen instead of washing their feet.

At long last, One Was a Soldier, the seventh book in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s popular and well-regarded mystery series, will be released next week. I’m sure I’m not the only reader thinking, “Finally!” Continue reading

Review: The Holy Thief

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

The Holy Thief
William Ryan
Minotaur Books, September 2010
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks

“I’m investigating the murders,” [Korolev] managed to say. “If it’s in my power, I’ll bring whoever committed them to justice.”

“Soviet justice?”

“It’s as good as any. The system may not be perfect—I’m not blind. These are eyes in my head. But we work for the future, a Soviet future. And it’s as fair as any damned justice system the capitalists ever lied about.” He could feel his leg trembling against the bale of hay. Was it anger or some other emotion? He wasn’t sure of anything any more. But if he didn’t believe the leadership weren’t working for the People’s future—well, where would he be? What hell would he find himself in then—if it all turned out to be a blood-soaked lie? He spat on the floor to ward off the thought, and then fumbled for another cigarette. He put it in his mouth, reaching for his matches, but Kolya had already extended a lighter.

“Thank you,” Korolev said, hearing the gruffness in his voice. He offered the Thief the packet.

“You’re an honest man. And you are a Believer, aren’t you?” Kolya seemed to be weighing him up.

“It’s none of your business.”

“Maybe it isn’t. But what if, at some stage, you have to decide between your loyalty to the church and your loyalty to Comrade Stalin. How do you think you would decide?”

In 1936 Moscow, as Stalin’s notorious Great Purge is heating up, Comrade Alexei Korolev is a battle-scarred, world-weary veteran who publicly swears fidelity to the Soviet Union and privately hides a Bible beneath a floorboard in his bedroom. Continue reading

Review: 13, rue Thérèse

13, rue Thérèse
Elena Mauli Shapiro
Reagan Arthur Books, February 2011

These gloves haunt you.

But let us not be bothered with that now. Let us not slip onto our own body these accoutrements of the dead. Such a gesture would be a bit strange, a bit unsettling. Such a gesture is unnecessary when the object is before us and we can look at it at our leisure.

The gloves are flexible, strong, starkly black. They look like something to be worn to the funeral of a beloved someone; as you might have observed, they look like a widow’s gloves. The truth is that they are merely church gloves, worn every Sunday to holy offices. The color is so because white gloves are better suited to a virgin (or at the very least, a young and unmarried woman who could still plausibly undergo such a pantomime of purity). Black is the color of the true woman, one burdened with keeping a house and bearing children—a wife.

Louise has yearned keenly for the fulfillment of motherhood. She has been trying so hard. As of the day where our story hovers (Tuesday, November 6, 1928), she has not succeeded in this strenuous endeavor, though Lord knows she has been the most efficient puller of husbandly seed she had been allowed to be.

13, rue Thérèse is a delightful and clever origami box of a story. I’m probably not the first to make that analogy, nor do I think I will be the last, but it is an apt comparison: it is the kind of story that folds fiction and history, reality and imagination back and forth upon themselves until the reader scarcely knows which end is up.

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Review: Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle (book & audio)

Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle
Georgette Heyer
Harlequin Books, 2004 (original copyright 1957)

Abridged audio version read by Richard Armitage
Naxos Audiobooks, 2009

Silence fell. Miss Marlow sat gazing abstractedly at a Buhl cabinet; and his grace of Salford, unaccustomed to such treatment, eyed her in gathering resentment. He was much inclined to pick up the newspaper again, and was only deterred from doing so by the reflection that disgust at her want of conduct was no excuse for lowering his own standard of good manners. He said in the voice of one trying to set a bashful schoolgirl at her ease: ‘Your father tells me, Miss Marlow, that you are a notable horsewoman.’

‘Does he?’ she responded. ‘Well, he told us that you showed him the way with the Heythrop.’

He glanced quickly down at her, but decided, after an instant, that this remark sprang from inanity. ‘I imagine I need not tell you that I did no such thing!’

‘Oh, no! I am very sure you did not,’ she said.

He almost jumped; and being now convinced that this seeming gaucherie was deliberate began to feel as much interested as he was ruffled. Perhaps there was rather more to this little provincial than he had supposed, though why she should utter malicious remarks he was at a loss to understand.

At first glance, Sylvester is not the usual sort of book I like. I’m not a fan of romance novels, the Regency period holds no historical interest for me, and Georgette Heyer’s punctuation style, with its excess of dashes and exclamation marks and inadequate use of commas, drives me crazy. In fact, having been subjected to numerous recommendations of her work, I attempted to read Cotillion a couple of years ago and barely made it beyond the first chapter.

I am a fan of the British actor Richard Armitage, however, and he happens to have narrated abridged audiobooks of three Heyer works, among them Sylvester. After comparing synopses of the three novels, I settled on Sylvester, and downloaded it from iTunes.

Was I instantly hooked? No, not really. I enjoyed it, to be sure, but it was more the appeal of Armitage’s voice than the story itself that had me listening to it over and over. In time I purchased the audiobook of Venetia, also read by Armitage, and though I enjoyed that one as well, I kept going back to Sylvester. Curious to see what had been cut from the original, I checked Sylvester out of the local library.

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Review: Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night
Dorothy L. Sayers
HarperTorch, 2006 (original copyright 1936)

Lights on the river. The plash of sculls. The steady chock of the rowlocks.

The boat crept slowly downstream. The constable, crouched in the bows, swept the beam of a powerful torch from bank to bank. Harriet holding the rudder-lines, divided her attention between the dark current and the moving light ahead. The Dean, setting a slow and steady stroke, kept her eyes before her and her wits on the job.

At a word from the policeman, Harriet checked the boat and let her drift down towards a dismal shape, black and slimy on the black water. The boat lurched as the man leaned out. In the silence came the answering groan, plash, chuck of oars on the far side of the next bend.

“All right,” said the policeman. “Only a bit o’ sacking.”

I always seem to forget how enjoyable it is to read Dorothy L. Sayers. I approach each new Lord Peter Wimsey mystery with trepidation, expecting something stodgy and dull, and each time I find myself delighted beyond expectation. Gaudy Night is only my third Sayers, after Murder Must Advertise and Busman’s Honeymoon (yes, I am reading them out of order), but it has thoroughly cemented my high opinion of Sayers and my fondness for Lord Peter and made Harriet Vane one of my favorite characters in fiction.

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Review: Bruno, Chief of Police

Bruno, Chief of Police
Martin Walker
Vintage Books, 2010
Originally published in the UK in 2008 by Quercus Books

Suddenly Bruno noticed something odd. After every previous parade, whether it was for the eighth of May, or the eighteenth of June, when de Gaulle launched Free France, or the fourteenth of July, when France celebrated her Revolution, or the eleventh of November, when the Great War ended, Jean-Pierre and Bachelot would turn away from each other without so much as a nod and walk back separately to the Mairie to store the flags they carried. But this time they were standing still, staring fixedly at one another. Not talking, but somehow communicating. Amazing what one bugle can do, thought Bruno. Maybe if I can get some Americans into the parade next year they might even start talking. But now it was thirty minutes after midday and, like every good Frenchman, Bruno turned his thoughts to lunch.

In the village of St. Denis, in the Périgord region of France, Bosnian war veteran and police chief Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges keeps the peace. Continue reading

Review: Cryoburn

Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, November 2010
New hardcover

“Within the last few months,” [Miles went on,] “as the flagship facility we saw in Wing’s vid was nearing completion, WhiteChrys began collecting contracts on future customers. Not unnaturally, they targeted Solstice upper-class elderly women’s clubs. At the same time, another sales team made some limited strategic stock offerings to certain wealthy and influential Komarrans, to give the local powers-that-be a stake in the future success of their operations. I expect the two sales teams didn’t compare hit lists, nor realize that some wealthy old ladies are retired Komarran traders who can read a balance sheet to a gnat’s eyebrow.

“And one of those little old ladies looked at the two proposals before her and said, ‘This smells, but I don’t see how,’ so she took it to her beloved great-niece, who said, ‘You’re right, Auntie, this smells, but I don’t see how,’ who took the problem in turn to her devoted husband, better known as Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. Who handed it to his loyal Imperial Auditor, saying, and I quote here, ‘Here, Miles, you’re better at diving into the privy and coming up with the gold ring than anyone I know. Have a go.’ And I said, ‘Thank you, Sire,’ and took ship for Kibou-daini.”

Cryoburn, the latest installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s brilliant Vorkosigan saga, has Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan investigating possible shady dealings in the cryonics industry on Kibou-daini, a world heretofore unexplored in the series. The story, which opens with a drugged and hallucinating Miles wandering through a warren of underground cryocombs – a storage facility holding thousands of cryonically frozen bodies – after escaping a botched kidnapping attempt, unfolds through the eyes of three narrators: Miles, his bodyguard Roic, and Jin Sato, a young Kibou boy with a personal stake in cryonics.

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Review: When Christ and his Saints Slept

When Christ and his Saints Slept
Sharon Kay Penman
Ballantine Books, 2009 (1995)
Purchased new trade paperback

The hall was a scene of chaos. The other women had not been as punctilious about propriety as Maude, and had hastened downstairs in various stages of undress. Everywhere she looked, she saw unbound hair, bare feet, husbands and wives entwined in joyful, welcoming embraces. Her entrance went almost unnoticed in the confusion, and it was several moments before Robert disentangled himself from Amabel’s arms and shoved his way through to her side. Maude reached out, taking his hand in hers. “Thank you,” she said, “for winning back my throne.”

I do not know where to begin in describing how utterly disappointed I am in this book, the first in Penman’s trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have to praise Penman for her thorough research and the way she brought twelfth-century France and England to life; as a historical novel, When Christ and his Saints Slept succeeds. As a work of fiction, however, it is a mess.

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