Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Woman with a Gun (Book Review

Publication Information: Harper Collins, Hardcover, December 2014
Genre: Suspense
 Plot: This is a story within a story inspired by an unusual photograph of a woman in wedding dress approaching the ocean, holding a gun.  Stacey Kim is working as a receptionist at a law firm in New York to pay the bills while she nurses literary ambitions: 

"Stacey’s nonexistent social life and mind-numbing job would not have mattered if she was making progress on her novel, but she wasn’t . . . Each time Stacey stared at the blank page on her laptop she tried to rekindle the hope and excitement she had felt during her first days in New York, but all she felt was despair.
That was about to change."

Bored and frustrated, Stacey visits MOMA at lunch one day where she sees and is fascinated by this iconic photograph, learning that the subject, Megan Cahill, is suspected of killing her husband on their wedding night.  Stacey is convinced the photograph should be the basis of her novel, and impulsively quits her job and heads to the Oregon to interview as many of those involved in the investigation as possible, including the legal team and the photographer, Kathy Moran.

Audience:  Fans of suspense, thrillers.  I was trying to remember other books that have a photo as a focal point and temporarily cannot come up with any, although Robert Goddard’s Caught in the Light is about a photographer who becomes obsessed and Portraits in an Album is about a family photo album and its secrets.

What I liked: I had read and enjoyed some of Margolin’s more traditional legal thrillers about Dana Cutler, so was curious about this one.   After a slow start, I found it very unusual and entertaining.    I liked the character of Stacey and admired her determination to interview everyone involved in the original murder of Megan Cahill’s husband, and was pleased when she began to connect in a personal way with some of these individuals.   Margolin manages to pull all the storylines from the past and present together in a satisfying conclusion.

In another book of his I read recently, he mentioned having lost his wife.  I am glad he has kept writing and hope it has distracted him from his grief.

What I disliked: Some of the characters were so unpleasant I didn’t want to read about them, so I was on the fence until Stacey began to appeal to me.    While I think I prefer his more traditional thrillers, I admire an author willing to try something new.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours and I invite you to visit other stops on the blog tour listed below:   
Tuesday, December 2nd: The Steadfast Reader
Wednesday, December 3rd: Books in the Burbs
Thursday, December 4th: Under My Apple Tree
Friday, December 5th: BoundbyWords
Monday, December 8th: The Daily Dosage
Tuesday, December 9th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, December 10th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, December 10th: Great Minds Read Alike
Thursday, December 11th: Bibliotica
Friday, December 12th: FictionZeal
Monday, December 15th: Fuelled by Fiction
Tuesday, December 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, December 17th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
Thursday, December 18th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Friday, December 19th: Reading in Black & White
Monday, December 22nd: Ace and Hoser Blook
Tuesday, December 23rd: Living in the Kitchen

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You’re Welcome vs. No Problem

I am a serial thanker.  This may be partly because of my experience in service industries or due to innate courtesy.  When living in NYC, I always thanked bus drivers profusely, partly to be nice but also convinced that some day one would recognize me running to catch up and would wait for me.  Recently, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon: the new default response to a thank you from the younger generation is “no problem.”   However, I do not consider that “no problem” is by any means an equivalent to “you’re welcome” or that it is appropriate in all situations.

When someone says “you’re welcome,” she is making an affirmative representation that providing service to you was, if not her privilege, something that gave her satisfaction.  The transaction is cemented by gracious thanks on your side and polite assurance on hers.

In contrast, when someone responds to thanks with a “no problem,” whether courteously or airily delivered, it implies that there was a problem or that he was not overly inconvenienced by the service provided.  “It was not a problem for me to assist you in this way” or “There is no need to thank me because it didn’t cause me a problem.”   Does that individual intend to communicate churlishness?  Probably not (although the service I receive from some would indicate otherwise) but why not send the thanker off feeling appreciated rather than grudgingly tolerated?  Otherwise, why acknowledge the thanks at all? 

Is this generational, mere informality or a real decline in manners?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Outlander – Season 1, Episode 8, Both Sides Now – Recap

This episode begins in 20th century Inverness showing Frank’s side of Claire’s disappearance.  I never cared that much about Frank’s suffering but Ron Moore, the producer of Outlander, decided to fill out that part of the story.  The police tell Frank that they have spent six weeks investigating Claire’s disappearance without results and they have concluded she is still alive, probably with the Highlander Frank saw lurking outside her window.   Frank is furious with their lack of effort and assumptions about Claire, and says emphatically that his wife is not with another man.   
Immediate cut away to Claire with her other man – her new husband, Jamie.  They appear to be picnicking on a scenic mountaintop and Jamie is asking her in a tone of mixed shyness and awe, “Is it usual, what it is between us, when I touch you, when you lie with me, is it always so between a man and a woman?” Claire replies gently that it is indeed unusual and different, but before we can enjoy this tender moment, they are interrupted by an arrow.  Thank goodness she is not about to be threatened with rape again, or at least not yet.  Instead, it is Jamie’s old friend Hugh Munro, who is mute due to long ago torture by the Turks but is able to communicate with Jamie.  Hugh gives Claire a piece of amber containing a dragonfly (title of future book alert!) and, more usefully, tells Jamie there is a Redcoat deserter, Horrocks, who might be able to help Jamie clear his name and remove the price from his head.

Frank’s only confidante in his distress is Reverend Wakefield, who has collected all the newspaper clippings and comes up with possible explanations for Claire’s disappearance.  We get our first glimpse of Roger, the reverend’s nephew, adopted when his parents were killed in the Blitz.     At a bar, drowning his sorrows, Frank is approached by a mysterious woman named Sally.  She promises information on the alleged Highlander if Frank meets her that night with the reward money.   I was sure Frank was going to get beat up but I guess his war work, despite being behind a desk, included some self defense because he takes them down easily.  Maybe he is channeling his evil ancestor.  Back at the vicarage, Reverend Wakefield advises Frank to move on with his life.  “You believe she left with the Highlander of her own volition?” Frank asks.  Quoting Sherlock Holmes, Reverend Wakefield says, “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper, Mrs. Graham, insists on telling Frank that there is another explanation for Claire’s disappearance.  She tells him there are legends and songs about the standing stones of Craigh na Dun, about people traveling through time.  Mrs. Graham tells him she believes Claire has traveled to another time but according to legend, some of the travelers return.   Frank listens carefully but tells Mrs. Graham he doesn’t believe her.   He has packed to return to Oxford but on the way, he stops at Craigh na Dun to take a last look.

Back in the 18th century, Angus is instructing Claire in how to use a knife.  When Claire and Jamie sneak away from the MacKenzies for a little alone time, they are interrupted mid-thrust by two deserting English soldiers who grab Jamie.  One holds him at gunpoint while the other attempts to rape Claire.  Terrified, Claire waits for her moment and, aided by her recent lesson, pulls out her dirk and stabs her attacker (in the nick of time) while Jamie is able to pull free and kill the other soldier.  

Afterwards, Claire is in shock and angry at Jamie for failing to protect her.   However, she soon realizes she is primarily angry at herself for giving up her attempt to reach the standing stones and return to Frank.   When she realizes she is close to Craigh na Dun, she ignores Jamie’s request to stay put and rushes toward the stones.  This scene is the most beautifully filmed of the whole series – an unbelievably gorgeous setting and background scenery of hills and valley, with Claire rushing from one direction and century and Frank moving restlessly among the stones in his century, calling her name while he chokes back sobs and his voice reverberates back to the 18th century, causing Claire to speed up.   Somehow he also hears her voice as she calls, “Frank! Wait for me!” but just as she reaches for the stone that we believe would bring her back to the 20th century she is grabbed by Redcoats, and Frank is left alone among the stones and returns to his car.
It would have been tempting to end the episode there as this was a magnificent scene.  But another one is coming: the English soldiers bring Claire to Captain Randall at Fort William.   Captain Randall is still suspicious of Claire and wonders why Dougal was so eager to protect her.   He warns Claire that he will find out her secrets no wonder what it takes – and we all know Captain Randall loves torture and I don’t know about you but I do not want to witness any more of that.   Remembering a theory of Frank’s about Captain Randall, Claire says if he wants to know her secrets perhaps he should ask the Duke of Sandringham.   This ploy works beautifully at first; Claire almost convinces Captain Randall that they are both employed as spies by the Duke, and that the Duke would be annoyed if Claire’s mission is interrupted.   Then Claire oversteps her knowledge and Captain Randall realizes she was bluffing.  He ties her up and Claire screams for help.   Black Jack rips her bodice, waving a knife in her face, and is about to carve up her breast and rape her, laughing diabolically.

At that moment, Jamie appears at the window looking ferocious, and says, “I’ll thank you to take your hands off my wife.”   Captain Randall looks up, recognizes Jamie instantly from their previous encounters, and his laughter grows deeper and increases its maniacal edge.


What’s Important About This Episode:

·        Claire is in the middle of two important love triangles: the obvious one is Claire-Frank-Jamie but Frank and Jamie don’t know each other.   She is also caught in the relationship between Captain Randall and Jamie, which is characterized by weird fixation on Randall’s side and hatred on Jamie’s, not to mention Randall’s violent obsession with Claire (this is the second time he’s been about to rape her).  From Claire’s perspective, the relationship is complicated by Randall’s resemblance to Frank and her knowledge of his abuse to Jamie, Jenny and his known depredations in the Fort William area.

·        When Jamie appears at the window and reveals Claire is his wife, Captain Randall finally learns he is part of this triangle.  

·        Adding scenes and back story from Frank’s point of view is effective but also causes us to sympathize with him.  Fans of Jamie Fraser may prefer for Frank to stay out of the story.   There are way too many shots of Claire’s wedding rings in this episode.  Okay, we know she is torn.

·        I guess Diana doesn’t want the reader to romanticize the 18th century too much, so she shows the endless conflict and danger faced by the Highlanders.  Did she go a little overboard in this book with all the attacks on Claire? 

·        Roger Mackenzie Wakefield will grow up to be an important character in later books.

·        Two incredible scenes in this episode, sandwiched by Claire’s attempt to bluff Captain Randall (and that doesn't even include Claire's first kill).  How can we all wait until April 4, 2015 when Starz returns with the second half of Season One?  
Images copyright to Starz

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sea Garden (Book Review)

Title: The Sea Garden
Author: Deborah Lawrenson
Publication Information: HarperCollins, hardcover, 2014
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Plot: This book consists of three interlocking novellas.  In the first story, set in 2013, Ellie Brooke, a landscape architect, has traveled to an island off the French coast to restore a long neglected garden. Her employer is an urbane older Frenchman with an eccentric elderly mother. Ellie’s visit has ominous overtones even before she reaches the decayed home of the de Fayols family, but she experiences the usual gothic intimidation once she arrives: hostility, a host who abandons her, mysterious strangers, her possessions rifled, and she becomes mysteriously dizzy.  Ellie’s narrative ends abruptly.

The second story appears unconnected.  Set during WWII, it is about a blind young Frenchwoman who works for a small family perfume business in Provence.  Slowly, Marthe becomes aware that her employers are involved in the Resistance and are sheltering English and American pilots and agents, later to be smuggled past the German soldiers to safety.  Can shy but appealing Marthe play a part in this dangerous undertaking?

The third and most appealing story, also set during WWII, is about Iris Nightingale, a young woman working for British intelligence in London.  Part of her job is preparing men and women to go undercover in Occupied France.  We see Iris gain in confidence as the war goes on and her responsibilities increase (although the condescension of the men she works for is infuriating); then she falls in love with a dashing French agent, and her life will never be the same.     

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and of “past-present” books; those interested in WWII.

What I liked:  Overall, this book was a good blend of suspense and enough romance to make it interesting.  At first, I had a hard time getting into it because the first novella, Ellie’s story, was very dark and seemingly disorganized, and left me wondering what I had missed.  However, Marthe’s narrative, although familiar to me from many books about occupied France (for example, Fair Stood the Wind for France, which I enjoyed last year), was somewhat different because told through the prism of her blindness.  It was improbable but dramatic and unexpected.   Most of all, I enjoyed the third story, which was set in WWII London and had a dramatic and magical feel.  Iris was a delightful heroine, practical and good humored, but capable of a great romance with a dashing French stranger.  I also liked Iris’ friendship with another young woman working in British Intelligence and her work for a formidable boss, Miss Acton.  Several times, I found myself wishing the whole book had been told from Iris’ perspective because (as has been well disclosed) I love books about young women’s war work. 

The author left it very late to reveal the mystery connecting the three novellas, and while I had somewhat figured out where she was going I was still surprised by some of the outcome (and admired the unexpected ending, despite not liking it).  Once I finished the book, I had to reread the entire first section to see if some of my confusion would be alleviated.

What I disliked:  As mentioned elsewhere, the three novellas were uneven and I am still perplexed by some of the things that happened to Ellie, including the significance of the man who committed suicide on the boat, and how a newspaper story about her landscape work caused a woman on a remote French island to seek her services (well, I understand how but wish it were a little more plausible). And I can’t help feeling it is a pity to have a devastating hero like Xavier but give him so little time on stage.  

Source: I received an advance copy of this book from Harper Collins in return for an honest review.  Despite some unanswered questions, I recommend The Sea Garden enthusiastically, especially to friends who share my passion for fiction about WWII – four stars.  Let’s compare notes about Ellie’s part of the story when you finish.