Category Archives: historical

Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

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*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

Review: Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

12th November 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Little, Brown in exchange for an honest review.

A woman wakes in a French battlefield hospital with no recollection of who she is, where she is, or how she may have gotten there. But she does remember how to assist the doctors and how to drive an ambulance, a difficult skill. From all accounts, she’s American, though it’s only 1916, and American hasn’t yet entered the war. On leave, she attempts to make her way to the Admiralty in London. She isn’t sure why she needs to go there, but the place holds significance for her, and she’s hopeful someone can identify her there.

But on the way, she takes ill, and Dr. August Bridge and his wife take her in. Dr. Bridge is a cranial surgeon, unfit for war because of scoliosis and bad eyesight, and he begins working with Stella in an attempt to regain her memory, as there are moments of clarity for Stella in which she only feels emotion. She sketches disturbing images she sees but cannot determine whether they are true or a figment of her imagination. But the story turns in an instant when Stella remembers her old life.

***

So, you should know that when I was in college, I devoured Anita Shreve books. In my estimation, they are similar to what the Jodi Picoult books are now. Pretty covers. Intriguing stories, but with a depth I usually enjoy more than some other women’s fiction.

Stella Bain was initially enthralling. Watching as she struggles to place herself and recall her reason for being in France is fascinating. I felt as though much of the book would be spent with her and Dr. Bridge working to restore her memory. However, when her amnesia disappears – rather quickly in the scope of the novel – the story becomes something different altogether. Stella begins to tell what brought her from America to the battlefields of France, another different but intriguing narrative. Yet after the reader understands what has brought her to war and what caused her amnesia, the novel begins to wane.

Still a good read, Stella Bain suffers from what many novels in the past several years have – a promising introduction but a less-than-stellar fulfillment of its early potential.

Recommended for fans of Anita Shreve and those interested in World War I.

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Review: Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

5th September 2013

pg1

*I received this book from the publisher Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest review.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives on the island of Manhattan with his wife, Louisa. There for a book tour, the loving couple check into the Britannic Hotel, a building that boasts the thickest walls and an added bonus of soundproof rooms. As their room is prepared, Louisa glimpses a man and young woman arm in arm, noting their happiness.

The next day, the papers arrive, and a gory murder is splashed across the front pages. The victim? The same woman Louisa saw in the lobby of the Britannic the day before. She pens a note to the police, but the victim was the wife of a wealthy man. And the man she was with at the hotel was most certainly not him. In the corruptible Manhattan police force, the case goes away, but Louisa cannot stop thinking about it.

A sprained ankle keeps her from going on tour with Arthur, and she enlists the help of the hotel detective and a determined female reporter to track down the identity of the girl and her killer.

Promising, right? Even though not all that historically accurate, this is the type of book that can help me while away a summer’s day. Except that Cameron’s writing style was…odd. From the opening of the book, Louisa goes on at length about her and Arthur’s sex life. So much so that it stood out and began to be almost funny. But then, Cameron also used vivid sexual imagery in his narration as well:

The island of Manhattan looked in it like a thick penis about to penetrate the New Jersey Bay, which rather tickled Dunne; at the moment, however, he had the map placed vertically so that the penis seemed too flaccid to penetrate anything.

Immediately, at her eye level, somebody had written in indelible pencil, Fitch eats the hairy banana. She thought she knew what “banana” meant but didn’t understand the “hairy” party, although she’d seen only the one and maybe other men had hair on theirs.

These inclusions were…unsettling, but as the book progressed and more murders happen, I was absolutely horrified by Winter at Death’s Hotel. Gratuitous, heinous violence against women is disturbing, and the murders are described so vividly I had to set the book down and take deep breaths. A man is killed in the book (not a spoiler), but the violence is nowhere near as graphic in its depiction, and even more troublesome is the fact that the male character is described as a homosexual. The connection between sex, females and/or effeminate young men, and horrible violence is reinforced throughout the entire book. Most people I know don’t actually enjoy this. Yet we regularly consume books, TV, and movies that seem to glorify in just this type of gore. Disturbingly, these images haven’t lessened even as we are more aware of the “torture porn” industry and its perpetuation.

I did finish the book, though I wanted to pull a Joey from Friends and stick it in the freezer. After I finished reading it, I wanted it as far from me as possible even though the cover art isn’t suggestive of what lies beneath it. Perhaps if Winter at Death’s Hotel had spoken to larger problems of the correlation between women and sexuality and violence or had examined the killer and his tendencies I may have felt more willing to read and at least understand the inclusion of the violence. However, that never seemed to happen, and the closing scenes did nothing to change my opinion. In fact, I wish it had come with a warning, as I do not actively choose to read books like this. So I say, with hesitation, that you may…

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Audiobook Review: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

27th June 2013

pg1*I received this audiobook from Penguin Audio in exchange for an honest review.

Honor Bright is a Quaker woman who is fleeing a broken engagement and following her sister to Ohio, where the sister will be married. Though Honor is violently ill on the journey over, it is her sister who succumbs to illness once they reach shore. Instead of facing another lengthy trip overseas home, Honor continues her trip to Ohio, to her sister’s intended, and to a new life in a strange country.

On the last leg of her journey, she meets Donovan, a slave hunter. Crude and disrespectful, Donovan is everything Honor is not. Yet he unsettles her, and she sees the good in him. Belle, his sister, is a milliner and takes Honor into her home, offering her a spot to grieve for her sister while she waits for her sister’s fiancee, who must travel from the next town over. Belle is rough, but again, Honor sees Belle’s beautiful hats and stitchwork and knows Belle is a kindred spirit. Honor isn’t boastful, but she is adept with a needle, and Belle offers her work, stitching in quiet solitude, just what Honor needs to acclimate to America.

Once she reaches Faithwell, she finds the Quaker community much different from her own. She marries relatively quickly, in many ways just so that he has somewhere to belong. Her journey has changed her, but her new family constricts that growth. Honor has never seen a slave until she reaches America, but her community doesn’t rail against slavery as she wishes. After a runaway stumbles onto her new family’s property, Honor decides she must help the slaves, even against the wishes of her stalwart mother in law.

Honor Bright is a study in juxtaposition. She is faithful, but she also has strong beliefs, and when those beliefs butt up against the people of her community, she takes a stand. She struggles against the strictures her mother in law imposes, making decisions she herself is surprised at, all in the name of her newfound beliefs.

Though the quilting descriptions and their significance in the Quaker community was interesting, to a point, the endless descriptions of the stitches and what an excellent quilter Honor is were tedious. This is particularly apparent in an audiobook.

However, this is also an example of how good narration can save a book from an otherwise tepid response. Kate Reading narrates Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, and as with anyone whose name isn’t Simon Vance, it takes me a bit to grow accustomed to the voice reading me a story. But as I continued to listen (on a road trip to Dallas), Reading absolutely caught me with her pacing, use of accents, and intonation.

A quiet but consuming read from the eyes of an outsider both to the country and to the American Quaker community, The Last Runaway is absorbing historical fiction.

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Review: The Black Country by Alex Grecian

10th June 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Putnam Books in exchange for an honest review.

It was an unusual egg. Not at all like other eggs Hilde had seen. It was slightly larger than a robin’s egg, white with a thin spiderweb of red, visible under a paper-thin layer of snow….The blue dot in the center ringed a smaller black spot and reminder her of something, but it was out of context and it took her a long moment to place it.

And then she did and it was an eye, and the eye was looking at her.

Alex Grecian’s The Black Country has one of the more visceral openings of an historical mystery I’ve read in recent years. For those who think historical mysteries are “cozy” or can’t compete with more contemporary mystery, this installment of the Murder Squad series should change your mind.

Hammersmith and Day of the Yard’s Murder Squad arrive in Blackhampton in the British Midlands to find a snowy, sinking mining village. Three people are missing, and the locals are falling ill rapidly. The eye is cause for concern, yet no one seems eager to find Sutton Price, his wife, or his child, whose disappearance has caught the attention of the Yard.

The black country is, as its name implies, a dark and mysterious place, its people full of superstition. Resistant to the cool logic of the duo, the villagers seem to know more than they’re saying, as do the other Price children who remain tight lipped.

As time runs out, and Dr. Kingsley joins Hammersmith and Day, Grecian ups the fear factor as an unknown assailant with a striking resemblance to the local boogieman, Rawhead and Bloody Bones, stalks the woods, hunting one in the village’s midst. The people and the place seem to be against the detectives, as the village repeatedly sinks and settles during the investigation, causing damage and injury and leaving the inhabitants more and more unsettled, waiting for the black country to mete out justice.

Reminiscent of the uncanny fear Dan Simmons is capable of instilling in his writing, Alex Grecian’s The Black Country is worth a spot on your summer reading list.

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