Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante (Maggie Hope, #5)Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recommended for: lovers of historical mysteries, World War 2, lady detectives, Marvel’s Agent Carter

I really enjoyed this World War Two homefront mystery. It deftly combines a plethora of historical subjects and real historical figures with a clever plot and sympathetic fictional characters. As soon as I finished it, I looked up the other books in the series, wishing I could dive right in and skip over the other books in my queue.

At first, I was a nervous about the treatment of real life historical figures, but MacNeal won me over and I was soon able to lose myself in the story. The historical setting is well-done, and there’s a perfect balance between actual historical incidents and people and fictional ones.

At the height of World War Two, Maggie Hope is an American-born British spy working undercover as Winston Churchill’s secretary. In December 1941, right after Pearl Harbor, Churchill travels to Washington D.C. to meet with President Roosevelt, bringing along Maggie as part of his entourage. Without knowing that Maggie is a spy, Eleanor Roosevelt asks for her help investigating the disappearance of her secretary. Maggie also becomes embroiled in the campaign to save the life of a black Virginia sharecropper on death row. Eventually the two plot lines are braided together in a dramatic climax.

Maggie is an intriguing character: a trained spy who’s earnest and idealistic but who also has a dry sense of humor. I found myself wanting to know more about her. Raised in the United States by a professor aunt, her parents are a Nazi-sympathizing German and a British man. (The scenes involving her parents are the least effective. I assume they’re more meaningful to readers of the entire series. Without more background, their storyline was too melodramatic.) There’s an entertaining camaraderie between Maggie and her two male friends who also work for Churchill, and a frustrated romance or two adds some spice.

Throughout the novel, MacNeal skillfully weaves in social justice issues such as discrimination against African-Americans and women, and the legacy of British imperialism and American slavery.

”Yes, one of the District buildings [the Capitol] that survived the Brits in 1812.” Maggie pointed to the top of the high dome. “Freedom is one of my favorite statues.”

“A bit ironic as a topper for a building built by slaves, wouldn’t you say, Mags?”

She sighed. “You have a point.”

She also drops in a couple of gay and lesbian characters without making a big deal of it, acknowledging how difficult it was to be gay in this time period.

Overall, she very effectively recreates the atmosphere of World War Two Washington D.C., a time of great excitement and fear as the world waited to see whether the United States could turn the tide of the war. Music, food, decor, clothing, newspapers and magazines, restaurants and bars: the impressive amount of historical detail makes you feel like you’re really there:

On a bridge near the Lincoln Memorial, machine guns had been mounted, and soldiers patrolled. Outside the Jefferson Memorial, helmeted guards carried rifles with bayonets. Temporary wooden housing had sprung up on the Mall for the sudden influx of war workers.

As a mystery, my biggest complaint is that for some unknown reason, the villain is revealed early on. I personally prefer not to find out who the killer is until the end. It detracts from the suspense. Strangely, it’s also revealed almost in passing that the killer is a serial killer and it’s oddly downplayed. Make the villain less of a monster, unless you’re going to explore that character in more depth than this book does.

This isn’t one of those mysteries with a complex puzzle-like plot. Instead it entertains with compelling descriptions of World War Two Washington D.C. and sympathetic characters with a sense of humor and just enough emotional arc to satisfy. It’s also fun to see famous historical figures up close and personal.

I look forward to spending more time with Maggie Hope!

(I received a free copy of this book through Net Galley in exchange for an objective review.)

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Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern LoversModern Lovers by Emma Straub

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good escapist fare but ultimately disappointing

This book is like the Real Simple of novels. There’s ample description of beautiful women, real estate and food. Not much happens but every scene is like a photoshoot.

Two middle-aged married couples, Elizabeth and Andrew Marx and Zoe and Jane Kahn-Bennett, share intimately entwined lives in an idyllically suburban-like neighborhood of Brooklyn. Elizabeth is a real estate agent, Zoe and Jane own a fancy neighborhood restaurant and Andrew doesn’t know what he wants to do when he grows up. Each couple has a teenage kid: Zoe and Jane have a daughter, Ruby, and Elizabeth and Andrew have a son, Harry.

Three of the adults have known each other since college, when they were in a successful band called Kitty’s Mustache. A fourth member of the band, Lydia, went on to huge fame as a solo act before flaming out with a heroin overdose at 27, an icon in the making.

The action takes places over a single summer in which Zoe and Jane contemplate divorce (for no obvious reason); Ruby and Harry start a romance; and a shark-like Hollywood producer stalks Elizabeth and Andrew to get permission for a biopic of Lydia. Along the way, Andrew falls into the clutches of a self-styled guru and Ruby angsts about her ex-boyfriend and college.

The point of view switches between the six main characters, with Harry and Jane getting the least amount of coverage.

The main focus is relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how they change over time. The budding romance of Ruby and Harry echoes the complex history of their parents’ relationships. We see the adults’ marriages shift and mutate under pressure of events in the far-off past and in the present. A more peripheral theme is aging and how we reconcile our lives in middle-age with the idealistic hopes of our youth.

This book had a good set-up with interesting characters and situations but ultimately, it all seemed to lead nowhere. The potential conflicts fizzled into nothing. I kept anticipating that something more would happen and it never did. Or perhaps the problem was that the resolution of the conflicts was anti-climactic.

The only character that changes at all is Elizabeth, but her story arc wasn’t illustrated clearly enough to make that change emotionally resonant. I would’ve liked to have seen some of her post-book life.

With so many characters and points of view, this novel needed to be more tightly focused to have a strong impact on the reader. Instead it’s a lukewarm unstructured mishmash about which I didn’t care that much. I think it would’ve been better to choose one main character to focus on. There’s just too much going on with so many different relationships, the movie and EEVOLVEment subplots, the cat, Ruby’s ex, etc.

It also seems to suffer from the common affliction of unlikeable characters. Andrew, in particular, had almost no redeemable qualities and wasn’t that believable. Would a life-long New York resident be that naive? Perhaps, if his emotional needs were acute enough to blind him to the obvious, but the author doesn’t show that. Instead Andrew is just an oblivious, entitled jerk.

Also irritating as hell is Ruby, but she gets more of a pass because she’s clearly supposed to be an annoying teenager.

It irked me that there was no clear reason for Zoe and Jane to be contemplating divorce. I felt like there was something missing. The author never really shows us why. They grew apart a little? That seemed to be it. *shrug*

But here’s the thing: I actually enjoyed reading this and read it pretty quickly (admittedly while hoping for something to actually happen). So for all my criticisms, it’s clearly doing something right. I just have the feeling it could’ve been a lot better if the author had tightened it up and set up more coherent story structure and character arcs (any at all would’ve improved things). There’s a lot of good stuff here but the lack of pointed conflict makes for bland oatmeal instead of crunchy, salty bacon. er, or something. Actually, a couple of dramatic things do happen, but they don’t have any impact on the characters. Everyone just keeps plugging along in the same fashion. At most, somebody gets mad. That’s it. Nobody does anything differently because of a dramatic event.

All in all, kind of disappointing given the (inexplicably) good reviews.

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Photo Challenge: Mirror

Mirror

I’m not a photographer but I sometimes enjoy taking photos. When I saw this challenge, I thought it would be fun. But I live in a place with few reflections. Perhaps that’s metaphorical too. There are houses and cars and natural things such as grass and trees. On a walk, this was one of the few places I could see a reflection: a police car.

IMG_0091

This isn’t going to be a political blog. But this photo led me to some rambling political thoughts in an attempt to wrench some meaning out of this prompt.

The Police: are they a reflection of our society? Should they be? They perform a necessary function but they’re also a symbol. It’s there right in the emblem. Every police force has one, or a phrase that’s supposed to encapsulate what they stand for, such as “Serve and Protect” or “Courtesy; Professionalism; Respect.” These are aspirational phrases, there to remind the public and the officers themselves of their official role. How often do they correspond with the reality? As with any large institution, probably sometimes and sometimes not, depending on the individual.

Yet the image of a white person reflected in the drivers’ seat window of a police car reminds me that most police officers are white, regardless of the populations they serve. The percentage of whites in police forces is 30% higher than that of their communities. (source) This can be problematic, as recent controversies over shootings of African-Americans by white police officers have demonstrated.

On the other hand, the reflection shows I’m a woman. Our vision of a police officer is stereotypically a man and this is borne out by facts: in 2013, only 13% of police officers in the US were women. (source) People have argued that there would be fewer unnecessary police shootings if there were more female police officers.

The car door shows the United States Park Police emblem. It says E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. Googling reveals this is the United States Seal. So this emblem isn’t specific to this police force but represents the much bigger institution of which it is a part, the federal government. But it’s a good reminder that the police (and government generally) should serve all the people equally, that we are one regardless of where we came from or what groups we identify with, that we can unite in service of higher goals, and overcome self-interest that might divide us.

There’s an eagle in the seal, which is interesting because there are eagles on the land for which these particular police have responsibility. I regularly drive by a tree in which there’s a huge eagle’s nest and I always look to see whether I can spy an eagle. Sometimes I can see one sitting on the bare branches surrounding the nest. One time an eagle flew right in front of my windshield with prey in its mouth, probably after diving into the river on the other side of the road from its nest. It was a shock. I’d never seen anything like that before.

Well, that’s it for mirror-related ramblings.

 

 

Daily Prompt: Shiver

Daily Prompt: Shiver

Her body is a string pulled taut, waiting.

Fingertips like kitten’s feet pad up her spine, then spread, warm, across her upper back.

Her breath catches. Time stills as hands press into her, bone and muscle, the smallest drag of skin against skin, the merest suggestion of strength. Finally—finally—the hands move. With purpose, to please her, with the secret knowledge gained from long acquaintance.

She sighs.

Her body softly loosens as the hands do their work. Quietly, she vibrates in a lower register, a quaver of quick anticipation before resolving on a long, held note.

A low whisper, easier on the ear, pulses between them.

Garden District Gothic by Greg Herren

Garden District Gothic (Scotty Bradley, #7)Garden District Gothic by Greg Herren
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recommended
Light, quick-paced mystery with strong New Orleans atmosphere and gay MCs

You can book a weekend at a French Quarter B & B or save some money by picking up Greg Herren’s “Garden District Gothic” instead. This book is like stroll down Bourbon Street: nobody’s sober and everyone’s up to no good. You can practically feel the humidity rolling off the page in the newest installment of Herren’s New Orleans-set Scotty Bradley Mysteries. The magnolia-clad atmosphere is helped along by fading Southern belles languidly sipping absinthe on porches; luxurious Garden District mansions hiding a corpse or two and sweaty gay boys running charity races in red dresses.

The story plunges private eye Scotty Bradley deep into a decades-old mystery: who killed child beauty queen Delilah Metoyer? The riddle drops on Scotty’s doorstep when former teen bully Jesse Metoyer, Delilah’s half-brother, mysteriously re-emerges from obscurity and hires Scotty and his partners to look into it. There are shades of the Jon Benet Ramsey case from the 90’s and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as Scotty navigates a tangle of family secrets thicker than Spanish moss on a live oak tree.

This was a fun, light read. The mystery was satisfying and the setting and characters are unique. In the most successful aspect of the book, Herron does a fantastic job giving you the flavor of New Orleans, from the bohemian streets of the French Quarter to the stodgy upper-crust society of the Garden District. He doesn’t shy away from how the city has changed since Katrina either. Here’s Herren describing Bourbon Street:

Barkers outside outside strip joints try to lure spenders in, a guy in the hand grenade costume dances on his corner, and everywhere is the smell of Lucky Dogs and grease.

And the sedate Garden District:

If the Quarter is a painted whore, the Garden District is her much snootier and pretentious sister, narrowing her eyes disapprovingly at the immorality down the river. The people who live in those old mansions on their gorgeous lawns behind their fences will always smirk in the general direction of the Quarter, gently sipping tea from heirloom bone china cups held in white-gloved hands…although sometimes the “tea” is actually bourbon.

As far as the characters, Herren has created an intriguing one in Scotty Bradley, a life-long resident of New Orleans with psychic abilities who’s also one-third of a gay polyamorous relationship. This is the first of these mysteries I’ve read and Herren successfully introduces Scotty to new readers without getting bogged down in too much exposition. Approaching forty, Scotty’s a former go-go boy dealing with the unique challenges of aging as a gay man and the loss of his psychic abilities after Katrina. He has two somewhat improbable partners, a former FBI agent turned professional wrestler and a spy. Also in their household is a college-age nephew that the trio essentially adopted after his parents kicked him out for being gay. Scotty’s parents, unabashed hippies in a persistent haze of pot smoke who run a tobacco shop, provide additional color. Assorted other eccentric New Orleans types round out the minor characters and provide the engine for the mystery.

On the negative side, the aversion to a Nancy Grace-type television personality is overdone, there’s too much talk of the weather and the mystery resolves a bit precipitously. Also people are constantly smoking pot or drinking (but maybe that’s just New Orleans for you). Other than that, “Garden District Gothic” is entertaining and quick-paced and I would definitely read the other books in the series. If you’re looking for a light, entertaining mystery with gay main characters in a unique setting, I recommend it. (G-rated)

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in return for a review.

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