Saturday, June 28, 2014

Worthy Brown's Daughter

Worthy Brown's Daughter
Phillip Margolin
(HarperCollins, 2014)

Former attorney and author, Phillip Margolin, was compelled to write Worthy Brown’s Daughter when he read of a court case that took place in the Oregon Territory in 1850’s. A slave family named Holmes was brought to the Oregon Territory by their owner, Colonel Nathaniel Ford, with the understanding that they would work as indentured servants for Ford for a number of years, after which they would be freed.  The Holmes family upheld their part of the bargain but when the time came for Ford to free them, Ford freed the parents and one young child, but kept the family’s other children.  The family found a white lawyer who agreed to represent them and sued Ford for the return of their children.  In 1853 the Oregon Supreme Court Justice, the Honorable George Williams, ruled in the family’s favor but one child had already died in Ford’s care.  Margolin was so moved by this story that he decided to write a historical novel based on this sad situation.

The result is Worthy Brown’s Daughter set in Portland, Oregon in 1860 when Oregon was a new state (having achieved statehood in 1858), and the legal system still had a Wild West quality to it.  Worthy Brown, a freed slave, is faced with a problem similar to the Holmes family.  His former owner, Caleb Barbour, a scoundrel and an unscrupulous lawyer, reneged on his agreement to free both Brown and his young daughter Roxanne if Brown worked as an indentured servant for Barbour. 
Worthy Brown meets a young lawyer Matthew Penny, newly arrived in Oregon and still grieving the death of his young wife on the Oregon Trail crossing, and asks Penny to help him free Roxanne from Barbour.  Penny takes the case but complications arise, people die, others fall in love.  Meanwhile, Penny is faced with a moral dilemma that threatens to destroy both himself and Worthy Brown. 
Margolin uses compelling characters to tell his story.  Some are lawyers, others are wealthy movers and shakers in the state of Oregon, while some are unsavory individuals drawn to the opportunities in the West.  Occasionally the characters sound a bit “wooden” but it doesn’t detract from the story.  Margolin's experience as a criminal defense attorney adds realism to the legal strategizing and court scenes.

Picture of author Phillip Margolin
(Photo courtesy of Portland Tribune, Jaime Valdez)
The plot moves quickly, demonstrating Margolin’s background in suspense.  His prose is terse and to the point, befitting one in the legal profession.  The reader also gets a historical perspective of Portland during this time period.  In the author’s notes, he indicates when he has taken liberties with dates of actual events. 
My niece gave me this book, and it turned out to be enjoyable summertime reading.  Thanks, Carrie!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reading Mediocre Books

I don’t know why I read mediocre books, but lately I’ve read several.  For the most part they weren’t terrible, or at least they had some redeeming characteristics, or I wouldn’t have finished them.  In some instances I read them because I had purchased them, albeit on sale, and wanted to get my money’s worth. 

“What about your time?” a voice inside my head asks insistently. Another small voice whispers seductively, “You see what gets published, you can do as well.”  The discussion continues ad nauseam as I critique the books in my head.

A Talent for Murder
R.T. Jordan
(Kensington Books, 2009)
Purchased on sale, this book got my attention because the protagonist, Polly Pepper, is an older actress and an amateur sleuth who is the “nice” judge on a reality show, “I’d Do Anything to Become Famous.”  Other than Polly Pepper having a flamboyant personality and life style that was somewhat amusing, the book had few redeeming characteristics.  The answer to the question of what people would do to become famous turns out to be have sex with anyone, no matter what their gender, and to kill each other.  Perhaps the author, a publicist at Walt Disney Studios, was trying to show the absurdity of television reality shows and the depths to which people who produce and appear on them have sunk, but it didn’t work for me.  I was left wondering why I had read the book.

The Devil's Puzzle
Clare O'Donohue
(Plume/Penguin Publishing Group, 2011)
The Devil’s Puzzle is part of a series featuring Nell Fitzgerald who helps her grandmother run a quilting store in the small town of Archer’s Rest.  The events in this book take place during the preparations for the big Fourth of July celebration when a skeleton is found in the yard of Nell’s grandmother.  Everyone in town is a suspect as old secrets and former relationships surface, creating lots of red herrings.  There is nothing wrong with this mystery, but it didn’t really engage me—not the characters, the setting, the milieu, nor the plot—but I did complete it to see “who done it.”  Another reader might like this book better.  At least it is suitable for sharing with my older friend down the street who likes mysteries and sewing.

Double Shot
Diane Mott Davidson
(William Morrow, 2004)
I picked this up on sale because I used to read this cozy series by Diane Mott Davidson and enjoyed the capers of the caterer, Goldy Schultz, and her friends.  Dead bodies turn up in the course of their catering jobs, and Goldy solves the mystery and cooks a lot.  I like the cooking part and the setting in Colorado, but nothing else works in this mystery.  Goldy’s abusive ex-husband is murdered, and the reactions of the characters are unbelievable, especially Goldy’s teen-age son who is devastated despite knowing how his father treated his mother, other women and people in general.  The father was totally immoral, and the reader is supposed to believe a teen-age boy would have no concern or awareness of this fact, nor exhibit any ambivalence about his father.  The ending is equally absurd.  This is a book that must have been written on deadline with no one much caring about the content.

Christmas Carol Murder
Leslie Meier
(Kensington Books, 2013) 
Loaned to me by a friend and certainly the best of the lot here, this is another cozy series that I’ve read and enjoyed in the past. Small town newspaper reporter Lucy Stone and her family live in Tinker’s Cove on the coast of Maine—okay, that is two pluses upfront for the series: small town newspaper and coastal Maine.  The recession has hit Tinker’s Cover hard and the number of foreclosed properties is growing, and the town is cutting back on the hours of their employees, creating further hardships for the holidays.  Local company, Downeast Mortgage is one of the main culpable entities as they made balloon loans to people in town that they now can’t pay, and the mortgage company is foreclosing on people rather than letting them restructure their payments.  When a letter bomb kills one of the mortgage company’s owners, there is no shortage of suspects.  Juxtapose this with the local production of “A Christmas Carol” and you have the setting for a Christmas morality tale. 

For a bit of an upgrade in my reading life, I’ve now switched to historic fiction.  Stay tuned for that review.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Spell of a Magic Garden

Garden Spells
Sarah Addison Allen
(Bantam Trade Paperback edition, 2008)
 The Waverleys are an “odd” family—different from others.  They grow plants in their yard that have special properties.   Claire Waverley knows how to cook with the herbs and flowers grown in her yard (as did her grandmother before her)—how to combine the plants to produce certain feelings and behaviors.  Claire is a sought-after caterer who lives alone, content to cook for others and tend her garden. 
At least Claire is content until nights when the sliver of a moon smiles down provocatively, “the way pretty women on vintage billboards used to smile as they sold cigarettes and limeade.”  Because Claire dreams of her childhood on the smiley moon nights, she stays awake all night, avoiding sleep and the dreams of rootlessness, a mother who went from man to man, job to job, who stole to live and created such fear and insecurity in her daughter.  On these nights Claire would work in the garden “…so wound up that frustration singed the edge of her nightgown and she set tiny fires with her fingertips.”  
If people eat apples from the Waverleys’ special apple tree, the individuals will see the most significant thing that will happen to them in their lives—either positive or catastrophic events.  For this reason, the Waverleys guard this tree and immediately bury any apples that fall from the tree, to protect people from knowing a future they can’t control.  The apple tree portends things that are going to happen in the garden, throws apples at people when it gets bored and apparently has feelings of its own.
Claire’s existence is turned upside down when a young male art professor moves in next door, about the same time her younger sister Sydney shows up after years of absence with a young daughter, Bay, in tow.  Sydney is hiding from her ex--her daughter’s abusive and dangerous father, although she doesn’t immediately confide in Claire. 
Again Allen has created likable characters though they may be strange.  A favorite is Evanelle, the Waverley women’s great-aunt, who has the compulsion to give people things that they don’t know they need but soon will.  She doesn’t know why she has to give away strange items but she has done it all her life. 
I enjoy the way Allen weaves in magical elements that seem totally reasonable.  Art professor Tyler Hughes has "...tiny pinpricks of purple light hovering around him, like electrical snaps.”
Allen is adept at engaging all the reader’s senses, “…Sydney [as a child] would sit in the hallway outside the kitchen and listen to the bubble of sauce boiling, the sizzle of things in skillets, the rattle of pans, the mumble of Claire and Grandma Waverley’s voices.”
In describing another character, Allen paints a vivid word picture: “…her hair was blond and her boobs were big.  She drove a convertible, wore diamonds with denim, and she never missed a homecoming game.  She was so Southern that she cried tears that came straight from the Mississippi, and she always smelled faintly of cottonwood and peaches.”
This novel is light summertime reading on one level, but also deals with universal themes—self-discovery and learning to love and trust.  It is about coming home, literally and figuratively.  Equally important, it’s just fun to hang out awhile with author Sarah Addison Allen in the world she has created in Garden Spells.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Sugar Queen is a Sweet Treat

The Sugar Queen
Sarah Addison Allen
(Bantam Trade Paperback, 2009)

I was introduced to author Sarah Addison Allen when I found this book in a box of books in my mother’s basement, put there for anyone in the family to take.  I was surprised when I later opened the book to find that I had given the book to my mother, which she duly noted along with the fact that she had read it.  I was looking for light fiction when I started to read the book, but didn’t dream I would grow to love this author and her “Southern Magical Realism.”  It goes down easy.  The veil between reality and the supernatural shifts back and forth as if blown by a summer breeze.

This book was read as part of the Once Upon a Time reading challenge.  See prior post for more information.  You will note I didn't read what I had intended to read because I got fixated on Sarah Addison Allen's books!

Josey Cirrini is controlled by her wealthy, domineering, self-centered, and bitter mother, Margaret, though Josey’s situation begins to change when she discovers a strange woman hiding in her closet.  Della Lee Baker, a beautiful woman from Josey’s hometown, has a bad reputation and a self-destructive streak, so Josey surprises herself when she decides to let Della Lee stay in her closet for a while. Della Lee is there to help Josey live a real life, instead of remaining under her mother’s domination.  Josey, in turn, helps Della Lee find closure to situations in her life.

Allen’s books are sensory treats.  She evokes scents and sights to set the tone for her books, each set in a fictitious North Carolina location.  This genre will not be for everyone, but I love her descriptions, e.g. “feathery frost on the windowpane,” the locales and the characters.  

The characters often have immutable characteristics shared by everyone in their family.  The men in the Pelham family can’t break a promise once it’s given.  Other characters are associated with specific scents and powers, e.g. Josey Cirrini, the main character, smells like peppermint. 

“[Julian] smelled of alcohol and of something else, like if you took a match to a rosebush.”  He is the charismatic evil seducer: “He was beautiful, like he’s been carefully drawn with a charcoal pencil, every line perfect, every smudge delivered.” “Julian was sitting with Chloe, surrounding them both with in a cloud of rosy-black smoke that only the women in the bar could see….Chloe was stuck in his smoke, entranced by him.  She couldn’t get out alone.”

Beside Julian, Margaret Cirrini is one of the more villainous characters but eventually the reader develops some empathy for her, and she becomes a more sympathetic character.  Rawley Pelham, the local taxi company owner, has a secret that binds him to the Cirrini family.  Adam Boswell, the Carrini’s mail carrier and the object of Josey’s unrequited love, has his own hidden past.  CafĂ© owner Chloe Finley and her estranged boyfriend Jake Yardley are torn apart by a betrayal and a secret.  Every character has unrealized hopes and dreams and secrets--secrets that must be disclosed before individuals can achieve happiness.   

Chloe has a strange relationship with books.  They appear unbidden to her and always have a message for her if she would heed them.  When Chloe seeks to buy a house, the homeowner says:

Books can be possessive, can’t they?  You’re walking around in a bookstore and a certain one will jump out at you, like it had moved there on its own, just to get your attention.  Sometimes what’s inside will change will life, but sometimes you don’t even have to read it.  Sometimes it’s a comfort just to have a book around.  Many of these books [in this library] haven’t even had their spines cracked.  ‘Why do you books you don’t even read?’ our daughter asks us.  That’s like asking someone who lives alone why they bought a cat.  For company, of course….

 I would love this book, if for no other reason than this passage!

While each of Sarah Addison Allen’s books contains dark forces that threaten the well-being of the characters, these are dispelled by the end of the novel.  Remember, this is “magical realism.”