Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: Madam by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

When you hear New Orleans, what comes to mind? Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, right? Even today, we tend to think of New Orleans as a city that's more than a little naughty, a boozy, raucous red light district of a city. Of course, there was once an actual red light district there and although it didn't last long, it has left a permanent stamp on this city of masquerades and reinvention. Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin have chosen to write a novel, based on a true story, about the creation of Storyville, that storied red light district and one madam who started with nothing and rose to the pinnacle of her profession in Madam: A Novel of New Orleans.

In the late 1890s, New Orleans was rife with crime and vice. One city alderman, Alderman Sidney Story, wanted to restrict the city's prostitutes to one district, keeping them out of sight of the other good citizens of the city. His goal would eventually lead to the creation of The District, nicknamed Storyville after the crusading alderman and much to his chagrin. But the pious Story didn't know much of the women, the pimps, and the criminals who made up the population he wanted to hide away from view. In fact, he seemed unable to acknowledge the extent to which the "good" people of the city, including the politicians and the justices who were supposed to serve New Orleans, were in bed, literally and figuratively, with the unsavory side. Mary Deubler, one of the women Story would never have occasion to know, was one of the alley whores whose livelihood depended on the lax enforcement of the laws against prostitution. Born to a mother who was also a prostitute and who died when Mary was still quite young, Mary is pimped out herself at only 12 years old. Prostitution is Mary, her brother, and her brother's young, pregnant wife's main means of support. She is intelligent (she can read) and wily enough to try and better her situation when a chance comes her way but the poverty and conditions in which she plies her trade are inescapable until she comes to the attention of the kingpin of the New Orleans underworld, a man who will assist her in her transformation into Josie Arlington, exclusive madam.

The main narrative is framed by apologetic letters from her niece to a now deceased Josie/Mary. Both of the letters are dated from the same time period and they essentially say the same thing, giving the novel a strange repetitive circularity. After the introduction of the first letter, the novel jumps in time to 1907, when Mary, as Josie, was clearly in her prime and wildly successful. She's drawn as melancholy and lonely as she avoids a celebration of her birthday for reasons that never do become clear in the novel. This brief glimpse of her as a successful madam is short-lived though and the bulk of the story takes place a good ten years prior, when Mary is no more than an unremarkable alley whore trying to make enough money to feed her family. Mary's an interesting character, alternately jaded and naive, and she will be raised through the agency of someone else rather than by her own strength. Unfortunately, why she above any others would have been singled out remains a question throughout the novel.

The legal and political machinations behind the creation of Storyville are interesting to read and Mary's hard early life is fleshed out quite convincingly but there is nothing beyond her meteoric rise besides that small glimpse at the beginning of the novel. Lynn and Martin sprinkle historic characters throughout the novel as they allude to the birth of jazz, the uneasiness of race relations in the district, and the disenfranchised who people Mary's world. There is a surprising lack of place here, especially given how unique New Orleans has always been, descriptions of the underworld are often times glamorized, and the whole thing feels sanitized somehow, even if the main character is a prostitute. Hints of voodoo weave through an otherwise fairly straightforward story, presaging some of the eventual action. The writing is sometimes clunky and awkward, especially at the beginning, the missing chunks of time in the narrative are frustrating, and none of the characters besides Mary/Josie are fully realized. Despite the problems with the novel, this manages to be a quick and colorful read. Lynn and Martin do do a good job showing that the political wranglings affected those without a voice and without any other means of support and that the women of Storyville were just trying to make a living the best and only way they could. People who enjoy tales of New Orleans, those who like rags to riches stories, and those who have a bit of a prurient interest in the underside of history might find this worthwhile in spite of its flaws.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past two weeks are:

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Madam by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do But You Could've Done Better by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
To Love the Coming End by Leanne Dunic
Breaking and Holding by Judy Fogarty

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

A Well-Made Bed by Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts
The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Shelter by Jung Yun
The Center of the World by Jacqueline Sheehan
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The Last Time She Saw Him by Jane Haseldine
The Beauty of the End by Debbie Howells
Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones
The Company They Kept edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein
All the News I Need by Joan Frank
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault

Reviews posted this week:

The Odds of You and Me by Cecelia Galante
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore
My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith
Exposure by Helen Dunmore
Eliza Waite by Ashley E. Sweeney
Nine Island by Jane Alison
Roughneck Grace by Michael Perry
I Hid My Voice by Parinoush Saniee
The Other Woman by Therese Bohman
The Florence Diary by Diana Athill
Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James
The Mortifications by Derek Palacio
The Young Widower's Handbook by Tom McAllister
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Madam by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do But You Could've Done Better by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell
To Love the Coming End by Leanne Dunic
Breaking and Holding by Judy Fogarty

Monday Mailbox

Just one but I've had my eye on it for a while now. This past week's mailbox arrival:

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally came from Melville House and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

An Irish book about a young woman looking for a friend named Penelope in a world that thinks she's troubled and strange, this looks amazing.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan

It seems odd to say that a book set during WWII, one that addresses death, bombings, child refugees, and so forth is lovely but Jennifer Ryan's The Chilbury Ladies' Choir is just that. Lovely. It doesn't shirk the sorrows and the tragedies that happen in wartime but it does so in a way that celebrates indomitable spirit and the way that life continues despite the raging war.

Chilbury is a small English village not far from the coast. Almost all of the men have left the village to fight, leaving behind a village of women and children. When the local vicar disbands the church choir effective immediately after the funeral of the Winthrop's only heir due to the absence of male voices, the women of the village push back. Prim, the new music tutor, transforms the choir into a ladies' choir and the women of the village come together, outside of the usual gossip, rivalries, and other concerns large and small, through the music they sing. They draw together as a caring community, being comforted in their uncertain everyday lives and when faced with the terrors that war inflicts on them, through the beautiful harmonies and the powerful feelings that they stir.

The village and the people in it are not without their intrigues, scheming, and drama and the novel captures these charmingly through letters and diaries. There is an ensemble cast of characters, just as the women form an ensemble choir, who tell the majority of the story. Kitty Winthrop is thirteen going on fourteen, and she chronicles life as a girl on the cusp of young womanhood. She is observant and notices more than many but she is also blinded by a naive lack of understanding in the ways of the human heart, confiding in her diary what her family life is like, her adoration of one of the village sons, and the goings on of those around her. Venetia Winthrop, Kitty's older sister and a flirtatious young woman fully cognizant of her own power, writes letters to an old friend who has moved to London to work for the war effort. At least to start, Venetia is selfish and concerned with bending circumstances to her will, including making the enigmatic artist who has moved into their midst and claims to be exempt from the war by virtue of flat feet fall in love with her. Mrs. Tilling is the local nurse and a timid widow whose only son is leaving for the war, leaving her alone so that she must learn to fend for herself. Her journal entries are those of a frightened mother who must find a way to banish the fear and uncertainty, recognize her own inherent strength, and step up in whatever way the war will require. Edwina Paltry is the village midwife whose methods bring her into opposition with Mrs. Tilling's medical training. Edwina is a fairly unscrupulous opportunist and her letters to her sister detailing her schemes and filled with disdain for those around her are entertaining. These four women's writings tell the bulk of the story although an occasional piece from another character sneaks into the narrative as well.

The novel has a quiet dignity to it. It shows the women (and remaining men) as they face the war with determination even as their smaller, but no less personally important, domestic dramas continue to pull at them. The large cast of characters is people with characters who are all vibrant and alive, some good, some bad, and some still growing. The various plot threads and the four main narrators are all evenly balanced so that the reader is happy no matter which letter, or diary she is reading at any given time. And the novel has everything: love and death, heartbreak and friendship, community, service, and rivalries. Taking place over a mere 6 months in 1940, the story is a touching encapsulation of the daily life, the sacrifices, and the character, courage, and mettle of the country in a time of great strife and danger and fear. Readers who enjoy cozy stories or epistolary novels, those who are attracted to tales of the home front during WWII, and those who want to read touching stories, full of heart, will thrill to this delightful novel.

For more information about Jennifer Ryan and the book, check out her author website or like her on Facebook. Also, check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Crown for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

Immigrants are highly visible in the news right now, both legal and illegal. We talk about the effect of immigration on jobs, taxes, health care and education costs, infrastructure, and more. But the emotional cost of leaving your home for another country, perhaps forever, is rarely examined in depth. Patricia Engel's novel, The Veins of the Ocean, addresses life as an immigrant, the bonds of family, and a loyalty that stretches beyond country and beyond death.

Reina Castillo came to the US from Colombia as a baby. After discovering his wife's infidelity, her father, Hector, threw her older brother off a bridge in Miami.  Young Carlito was saved by a fisherman who jumped in after the child. Although it didn't happen to her, this is the central fact of Reina's life, indeed of her whole family's life. When Carlito, in his turn, throws his girlfriend's daughter off a bridge, the child is not saved. Hector committed suicide while in prison for his actions. Carlito spent years on death row for his, with Reina visiting him dutifully for that entire stretch of time until he too died in prison. Cut loose from her vigil and mourning the loss of her beloved older brother, a man no one else would grieve because of his terrible crime, Reina moves to the Florida Keys where she tries to move on with her life, meeting Nestor, a Cuban refugee with his own sad history.

Reina and Nestor are both leery of relationships with others, both having lost so much. Both are still deeply tied to their countries of origin and the people and places they've left behind, there and here. Their slow, almost offhand, developing connection to each other is tenuous. They are afraid to fully commit because of the cost of their already existing family bonds and each of them needs to figure out how they can break free of the real and created prisons of their lives. They contend with guilt and despair, grief, love, and loyalty, loneliness and poverty. The freedom of the open ocean and the contrasting captive dolphins at the center where both Nestor and Reina work are powerful allegories for the place in which they each find themselves and for which they are each searching.

About a third of the novel focuses on Reina, her childhood, her past, and her connection with her brother. The rest of the novel focuses on her life after Carlito's death and her fragile relationship with a damaged Nestor. The narration is slow and contemplative, almost dreamy and drifting in places. The characters are scarred and lost. The story aches with hurt, sorrow, and a feeling of displacement. It's dark and complicated and sometimes frustrating, much in the way that life can be. Readers who are drawn to family dysfunction or to immigrant stories or to character driven narratives will find much to think about in these pages.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis. The book is being released by Hogarth on March 7, 2017.

Amazon says this about the book: A richly textured coming-of-age story about fathers and sons, home and family, recalling classics by Thomas Wolfe and William Styron, by a powerful new voice in fiction

Just before Henry Aster’s birth, his father—outsized literary ambition and pregnant wife in tow—reluctantly returns to the small Appalachian town in which he was raised and installs his young family in an immense house of iron and glass perched high on the side of a mountain. There, Henry grows up under the writing desk of this fiercely brilliant man. But when tragedy tips his father toward a fearsome unraveling, what was once a young son’s reverence is poisoned and Henry flees, not to return until years later when he, too, must go home again.

Mythic in its sweep and mesmeric in its prose, THE BARROWFIELDS is a breathtaking debut about the darker side of devotion, the limits of forgiveness, and the reparative power of shared pasts.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Monday Mailbox

A pair of books I can hardly wait to crack open! This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan came from St. Martin's Press.

A novel about an obese man who decides to lose weight to raise money for charity as a way of handling his grief after his son's suicide, this sounds wonderful.

The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion came from St. Martin's Press.

I loved The Rosie Project so I'm very excited to read another Simsion. Even if he hadn't written it though, a novel about a man looking at a second chance with the woman he let go would totally and completely appeal to me.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Popular Posts