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: 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: The Legatus Mystery

The Legatus Mystery
Rosemary Rowe
Headline Book Publishing, 2005 (2003)
Purchased new MMPB.

Roman citizen I might be – indeed I was born a nobleman in my own tribe – but I was also an ex-slave and a tradesman, and the gulf between myself and Marcus was as great as that between me and the bath-house attendant himself. Without the most explicit instructions I would never have dared to come seek my patron here.

In late second-century Glevum (modern Gloucester), a body is discovered in a shrine to the Emperor Commodus, living embodiment of Hercules. The mere fact of the crime is shocking enough, but complicating matters are the facts that the emperor is not one to take sacrilege of his divine person lightly and that the victim appears to be an ambassador from Rome.

Then the body disappears, and there are reports of unearthly wailing and phantom bloodstains. Continue reading

Review: To the Bright and Shining Sun

To the Bright and Shining Sun
James Lee Burke
Harper Collins, October 2000.
Originally published by Scribner’s, 1970.
Purchased used MMPB.

For a moment he thought of forgetting the bus depot. He had almost fifty dollars in his wallet, and that would be enough until he could find some type of job. […] There was no work at all now back on the plateau, and his family would be better off if he stayed in the city and sent them part of his paycheck. There would be no J.W.’s to worry about, no long evenings in the cabin while his mother stared blankly at the fire, and no more quiet hatred or that anticipation of sudden violence when he stood next to a scab or a company man on a street corner.

The post-World War II economic boom, with the expansion in manufacturing fueled by increased consumer demand, should have been good for the coalfields of Appalachia. Instead, the social and economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression was prolonged by violent, protracted conflicts between union organizers and mine companies determined to keep the unions out and scrape every last cent of profit out of the region. This desperate poverty and equally desperate violence is the world in which Perry Woodson Hatfield James comes of age in James Lee Burke’s To the Bright and Shining Sun.

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Review: The Gutter and the Grave

The Gutter and the Grave
Ed McBain
Hard Case Crime/Dorchester, December 2005.
Originally published as I’m Cannon – For Hire by Curt Cannon by Hui Corp., 1958.
Purchased new MMPB

The name is Cordell.

I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning. I drink because I want to drink. Sometimes I’m falling-down ossified, and sometimes I’m rosy-glow happy, and sometimes I’m cold sober–but not very often. I’m usually drunk, and I live where being drunk isn’t a sin, though it’s sometimes a crime when the police go on a purity drive.

Matt Cordell is a cuckold, disgraced former private detective, and down-and-out drunk when boyhood friend Johnny Bridges finds him between benders and asks Cordell to look into the disappearance of cash from Bridges’ tailor shop. Before he’s even begun, Cordell discovers Bridges’ partner dead from two gunshot wounds to the chest and Bridges fingered as the killer. Then he meets Laraine Marsh, the victim’s sister-in-law, and all his past troubles begin to seem like mere inconveniences. With a former P.I. rival baying for his blood and the cops beginning to think he’s the killer, can Cordell cut through a Gordian knot of lies and maybe, just maybe, redeem himself?

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