Wednesday, January 29, 2014

REVIEW: The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pub Date: January 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased at FoxTale Book Shoppe
A tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930-Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance-as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

They say behind every great man, there's a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge's wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge's bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband's recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city's most notorious gangster, Owney "The Killer" Madden.

On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge's involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?

After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge's favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks-one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale-of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.


Once again, I am reviewing a book that is slightly outside my "comfort zone." Thanks to that wonderful book signing at the FoxTale Book Shoppe that I mentioned in my last review, I also had the pleasure of meeting Ariel Lawhon and learning more about her debut novel, The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, which was just released yesterday! Confession time: Before sitting through the event, I did not intend to purchase this book. I was wholly unfamiliar with this bit of history about Joseph Crater, I've never read anything set in the U.S. during this time period, nor did I have much interest in the 1930's New York political scene, gangsters, or Broadway. But during the panel discussion, Ms. Lawhon mentioned her great love of Agatha Christie and Christie's ability to subtly lay out all of the pieces you need to solve a mystery yet still make it nearly impossible to do so, and as she discussed a little about her book, I knew I had to pick up a copy.

While a work of fiction, this novel was certainly an eye-opener as to what life was probably like for some back in 1930's New York. The corruption, lies, and deceit of the political crowd, while clearly not the most savory of subject matter, certainly made for a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read. While there is not really any explicitly-depicted racy subject matter, much is implied, but thankfully in a manner that is not offensive. Truly, you can't help but get swept up in the lives of these three women who knew Joseph Crater the best. Each was very different, from Stella, Crater's carefully molded and groomed wife, to Maria, the seemingly unassuming maid and seamstress of some reknown, and lastly Ritzi, the mistress you want to hate but can't quite bring yourself to. (Admittedly, her story was probably the most fascinating of the three of them.) In bringing their stories and relationships with Crater to life, Lawhon's writing is vivid without being overly prosy and I could see the book playing out in my head almost like a movie. Quite honestly, I never would have thought that this was Lawhon's first book, as her storytelling and writing are far beyond many other debut authors I've had the pleasure to read over the years.

In the end, I only had one problem with the story and that was the way that Lawhon tended to jump back and forth in time from the various women's perspectives. The vast majority of the book is written during the period leading up to Crater's disappearance and the investigation that followed. However, Lawhon would occasionally take us back to events a few months prior to Crater's disappearance and it was often difficult to distinguish when the story moved back into the "present" time. While these flashbacks were absolutely necessary to the story (and in the end are quite crucial), I found the transitions jarring and sometimes difficult to follow. Perhaps had the flashbacks been their own chapters or scenes, I could have handled them better within the story.

When I reached the culminating chapters and realized what Lawhon had done, I was kicking myself for not piecing it all together on my own! While her mystery (as she imagined it, let me remind you -- this is purely speculation on her part) is not quite as complex as Agatha Christie's were, there were subtle clues sprinkled throughout the story so that if you paid close attention, you might realize where things were heading...though there are certainly plenty of attempts to throw you off the scent along the way! All-in-all, I thought this was a wonderful debut from Ariel Lawhon and I sincerely hope to read more books from her in the future!

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

REVIEW: The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

Genre: Fiction (Southern Fiction)
Pub Date: April 2012, Bell Bridge Books
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased at FoxTale Book Shoppe
Can the river heal her?

Roslyn Byrne is twenty-four years old, broken in body, heart and soul. Her career as a professional ballet dancer ended with a car wreck and a miscarriage, leaving her lost and grieving. She needs a new path, but she doesn't have the least idea how or where to start. With some shoving from her very Southern mama, she immures herself for the summer on Manny's Island, Georgia, one of the Sea Isles, to recover.

There Roslyn finds a ten-year-old girl, Damascus, who brings alligators, pumpkins and hoodoo into her sorry life.

Roslyn rents a house from Damascus's family, the Trezevants, a strange bunch. One of the cousins, Nonnie, who works in the family's market, sees things Roslyn is pretty sure she shouldn't, and knows things regular people don't. Between the Trezevant secrets and Damascus's blatant snooping and meddling, Roslyn finds herself caught in a mysterious stew of the past and present, the music of the river, the dead and the dying who haunt the riverbank, and a passion for living her new life.


No, your eyes do not deceive you -- there is actually a review posted on my blog! Don't take this to be any kind of promise that I am back with regularity and frequency, but I am trying to see if I can bring this little review site back to some semblance of life. And what better time to start than after just attending the best book signing to which I have ever had the fortune to go! Our local indie bookstore one town to the south of us, the FoxTale Book Shoppe, welcomed the Susanna Kearsley & Friends tour this past Monday evening. If you've followed my blog or know me elsewhere online, then you probably realize I love, love, LOVE Susanna Kearsley. Well, I hadn't actually heard of any of the other authors at the event, so naturally, I purchased books by each. I just finished reading The River Witch by Kimberly Brock this evening and felt compelled to share my thoughts with you. Nothing long and prosy and honestly, not much else to dress it up, but here we go...

I'll admit when the story began, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it or how I would feel by the time the book ended. And then I was swept away into a richly woven tale that was at times sad, humorous, heartwarming, and bittersweet. Along with all of that is a quirkiness to the characters and remote Southern setting that make it very unique and truly impressive for a debut book. As I fully confess to being a girl who prefers a happily-ever-after, I was surprised to feel so satisfied when I closed the book following those breathtakingly poignant final pages. The River Witch is a bit outside the norm for me, and the closest I can come to fitting it in its place among my history of reading is right alongside Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Now, it has been many, many years since I read that book, but that comparison is what first popped into my head as I started settling into Brock's story set in south Georgia along the Atlantic coast. Perhaps it is their shared locale of the Deep South that ties them together for me, but I also think it might be the quirky, memorable characters. And then again, perhaps you can't have one without the other. Add to the mix a writing style that calls to mind vivid images full of color, sound, smells, and even tastes while you read, and you have a remarkable debut. At times I felt the story wander and slow down, but Brock was usually quick to recapture my interest with an unexpected twist or witty insight from one of her characters. I definitely hope we see more from Brock in the future!

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