Saturday, January 26, 2013

Just Jennifer

Paging the Dead by Brynn Bonner (Gallery, March 2013)

Sophreena McClure is a professional genealogist who not only puts together family trees for her clients, but helps find family secrets, piecing together people’s pasts and then scrapbooking the history as a memento and record; all of this is done with a little help from her business partner Esme whose special gift, receiving messages from long dead relatives and often is able to help Sophreena fill in the gaps.  Currently, the pair is tracing the family history for Dorothy Pritchett Porter, one of the descendants of the founding fathers of Morningside.  Dorothy plans to display the completed scrapbooks at the upcoming Founders’ Day celebrations, but is found strangled before the memory books can be completed.  Now Sophreena and Esme have to turn their investigating skills to a family tree that has roots so deep and tangled that the history of a town may be turned on its ear and someone may be willing to kill in order to keep these secrets hidden.  A good blend of genealogy, scrapbooking and local history, Paging the Dead introduces a pair of amateur detectives with a sense of history and curiosity and a lot of heart and compassion for their clients. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Just Jennifer

Farewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister (Putnam, February 2013)

Violet Epps holds nothing back when it comes to her movie reviews, but in her personal life she tends to be a, well, shrinking Violet.  Violet, after a traumatic incident as a child with her now deceased older sister Ivy has a had a social anxiety and is afraid to speak up in her personal and professional life.  Writing allows Violet to channel her hero, early twentieth century wit, Dorothy Parker, but she is unable to capture the woman’s sharp tongue without pen and paper (or computer monitor and keyboard) in hand.  Needing a little extra courage when it comes time to dump her clingy boyfriend Carl, Violet plans to do it in the dining room of Parker’s hallowed Algonquin Hotel.  Something strange happens in the dining room and violet is certain Mrs. Parker’s spirit has appeared to give her an added push, but when the cantankerous, no-nonsense spirit follows Violet home and pushes Violet to face her fears and foes, Violet finds her life turned upside down, but ultimately finds a way to let her inner voice shine and thinks that Mrs. Parker’s spirit may just need Violet as much as Violet needs her.
Ellen Meister has captured both Dorothy’s Parker spirit and voice, brining the legend to life, in a manner of speaking, and has reimagined her wonderfully, acerbic, charming and oddly human all at once.  It is a treat to witness Violet’s metamorphosis, cheering her on when she makes progress and being frustrated, angry and sad for her when she holds back, possibly missing the chance at something wonderful.  Though parts of the plot are predictable, this book is full of warmth and wit.  Dorothy Parker’s resurrection is done with authenticity and feeling making this book hard to put down.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Just Jennifer

The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece by Roseanne Montillo (William Morrow, February 2013)

The name Frankenstein conjures up, for most people, a huge green monster with bolts coming out of his neck when, in reality, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor who created the monster in Mary Shelley’s gothic horror novel.  During the nineteenth century, not only were scientists and doctors fascinated by the human body, its life and death, and the possibility of life after death, not in the spiritual sense, but reviving the body using artificial, electrical means.  Many philosophers, artists, writers and everyday people could not look away as they became intrigued by the possibilities, elevating grave robbing and experimenting on the newly dead to almost a cottage industry.  Rosanne Montillo recreates this world in which Shelley was living, introduces the characters in her life and puts into context the scientific curiosities of the time that contributed to her writing Frankenstein.  Mary’s personal and familial lives are also woven into the narrative, giving a portrait of not only the times, but of the woman who created the masterpiece we know today.

Just Jennifer

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow, February 2013)

The assignment given to a first-year associate at a high-powered Manhattan law firm leads a young woman into a labyrinth of art, history and humanity, in the search for a woman whose fate has wide-reaching effects and makes Lina Sparrow question her own life and the true meaning of justice.  When Lina Sparrow is tasked with finding a plaintiff for a class-action lawsuit worth an astronomical amount in reparations for the families of American slaves, her father, artist Oscar Sparrow points her in the direction of Lu Anne Bell, a pre-Civil war artist known for her portrayals of plantation slaves.  The current thinking is that Lu Anne was not the artist of this collection of portraits, but her house slave Josephine.  Lina decides to research Josephine, as one of her defendants would be the perfect public face for her firm’s suit.  As Lina tries to trace Josephine’s family, she loses the trail shortly after Lu Anne’s death in 1852; Lina searches through papers, letters and records hoping to find something, but surprised to find things that bring to the surface Lina’s own mother’s death twenty years before.  The story alternates between Josephine’s story in antebellum Virginia, and Lina’s search for answers, not only for her job but herself.  Told with brutal honesty and without apology, The House Girl reminds readers that there are some secrets that are better off not kept.  The stories of two women, living over a century apart parallel each other in ways that no one could guess.  Art and history collide, making each of us examine the truths we tell each other and ourselves. 

Just Jennifer

Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew (Ecco, January 2013)

A law has just been passed in Oklahoma making harboring an undocumented illegal immigrant a felony.  The small town of Cedar is shocked when Robert John Brown, a life-long community member and churchgoer, is arrested for hiding a barn full of immigrants.  The events that follows shakes the town, the state and rocks Brown’s family to their very core.  Brown has been raising his ten-year old grandson Dustin since Dustin’s mother died and Dustin must now go and live with his aunt Sweet and her son Carl Albert.  Sweet finds herself coming apart as she worries about her father in jail, her son who is fighting with, and injuring, Dustin any chance he gets, and the usual worries about money and her husband Terry who works long hours for a utility company.  She is almost at her wits end when her niece, Dustin’s sister, Misty Dawn shows up on her doorstep with her three-year-old daughter and the husband who had recently been deported seeking refuge and Dustin goes missing, trying to help the one immigrant who wasn't caught in the raid on his grandfather’s barn be reunited with his sons.  Sweet’s story is punctuated by the story of an ambitious legislator, Monica Moorehouse, the author of the bill that set these events in motion.  Rilla Askew’s novel reminds us that while we are not all kin, we are all akin and all must live in this world together.  She faces several difficult and emotional issues, gives her characters choices that people do not have to make every day and never once passes judgment on their decisions, but holds nothing back in revealing what these decisions have wrought.  A community comes together as a family comes apart and the question “for whose good is this being done” is asked time and time again.  A wonderfully nuanced story with characters that won’t soon be forgotten.