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
9781841957982
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
9780786891368
MMPB

“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
9781608190423
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.

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Review: Murder in Montmartre

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

Murder in Montmartre
Cara Black
Soho Press, 2006
1569474109
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: The Holy Thief

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

The Holy Thief
William Ryan
Minotaur Books, September 2010
9780312586454
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: Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night
Dorothy L. Sayers
HarperTorch, 2006 (original copyright 1936)
9780061043499

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.

Continue reading

Review: Bruno, Chief of Police

Bruno, Chief of Police
Martin Walker
Vintage Books, 2010
Originally published in the UK in 2008 by Quercus Books
9780307454690

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: Burn

This review originally appeared on Buried Under Books.

Warning: This book deals with the sexual enslavement of children. While Barr does not indulge in graphic, prolonged descriptions, there are scenes near the end that leave little to the imagination. If the subject matter disturbs you, proceed with caution.

Burn
Nevada Barr
Minotaur Books, August 2010
9780312614560
ARC from Creatures ‘n Crooks.

In a city she was not familiar with—at least not in any but a surface, tourist sense—it would be too easy to stumble into organized crime networks and get hurt or killed. When people thought of organized crime, it was the Mafia or the tongs or, in recent years, the banks, careless of whom they destroyed in their grasping for money. The big guys were scary, but the networks most regular people ran afoul of were the small-time franchises, pimps who “owned” prostitutes and prostitutes who “owned” street corners and drug dealers who “owned” territories. The criminal equivalent of mom-and-pop stores. Every city, and a lot of small towns, were riddled with them.

Burn, Nevada Barr’s sixteenth Anna Pigeon mystery, is something of a departure from previous installments. Continue reading

Review: Persona Non Grata

Persona Non Grata (published in the UK and Australia as Ruso and the Root of All Evils)
Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury, 2010 (2009)
9781608190478
Giveaway from Goodreads’ First Reads

“Is it true someone’s trying to bankrupt us?”

Lucius leaned back in their father’s chair and folded his arms. “If I were to say no,” he said, “and ask you to go straight back to Deva for the good of the family, would you do it?”

“I can’t,” Ruso pointed out. “I had to wangle months of leave to get here.”

“So you can’t go back to the Legion.” Lucius managed to look even more depressed.

“Arria says somebody’s applied for a seizure order.”

Lucius let out a long breath. “There’s a law somewhere,” he said, “that says you can’t take out a seizure order against someone who’s away from home on public service.”

Ruso began to grasp the nature of the problem. “Does that apply to an ordinary man in the army?”

“The last thing I would have done, brother, was to ask you to come home.”

“So it’s true then? We have a legal problem?”

“We do now,” said Lucius.

In Persona Non Grata, the third in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series set in second-century Roman Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British companion Tilla (also known as Darlughdacha of the Corionotatae among the Brigantes) travel to southern Gaul, summoned by an ominous letter that says only, “Lucius to Gaius. Come home, brother.” As their father’s heir and effective (if not necessarily effectual) paterfamilias, Ruso has known for some time of his family’s precarious financial situation, legacy of the massive debts their father incurred during his second marriage. Fearing the worst, Ruso arranges leave from his duties as surgeon to the XX Legion and hurries home.

Continue reading