Friday, August 1, 2014

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

Three Brothers (2014), by esteemed English historian, biographer, and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, is a blend of satire, murder-mystery, and ghost story. The time period is 1960s London. The book details the lives of Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanaway, born in cockney Camden Town and raised by their failed author-father.  Their mother had run away when Harry was ten, Daniel was nine, and Sam was eight. It marked each of them forever.

Sam is most affected by the loss.  He is the kind and sensitive boy who lacks ambition. He is, however, the only brother with a moral sense. After he graduates high school, Sam is content to live with his father, wander the streets of London, and do odd jobs in a monastery inhabited by ghost nuns. He ultimately tracks down his mother, now a prostitute living in a house of ill repute.

Meanwhile, Harry, who drops out of high school at the age of 16 to become a reporter, eventually lands a job at a prestigious newspaper. He marries the bosses daughter and becomes assistant editor.

Daniel, who has always sought escape through books, becomes a professor at Cambridge as well as  literary editor of The Spectator. Ackroyd, himself, was once literary editor of The Spectator.

Although the three brothers lose contact with one another, their fates are linked by some unsavory characters. Most notable of them is Asher Ruppta, a slum landlord straight out of Dickens.  When it comes to Dickens, Ackroyd wrote the book on him - literally.* Sam is hired by Ruppta to collect rents in his tenement building. There he meets Sparkler, a gay prostitute and petty thief. Sparkler was once friend and lover to Daniel, who hides him from his Cambridge chums. And Harry is linked to Sparkler by way of his wife - a social worker. There are also shady politicians who are skimming the coffers and leading secret lives.

Three Brothers is a romp through the darker side of London - the poor neighborhoods and the gay bars of 1960s London where same-sex relationships were still illegal. Ackroyd pokes fun at the pomposity of academia, the cut-throat world of journalism, and the duplicity of political life.
As Mark Sanderson concludes in The Telegraph:

The waspish vignettes of literary London and fusty academe are a delight. The air is full of poison--and echoes of other Ackroyd novels. He sees the capital as 'a web so taut and tightly drawn' that the slightest movement sets off a chain of events. The repercussions of Mrs. Hanway's profession contain horror and hilarity in equal measure. The brilliant result is the quintessence of Ackroyd.

Three Brothers contains ribald behavior and lewd comments that might insult the sensibilities of some readers. But if one approaches the book as it was intended - as a camp novel sparing no one - then reading Three Brothers is just pure fun. 

*Dickens by Peter Ackroyd. Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990. 1195 pages.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Mangle Street Murders

March Middleton is a "modern" woman, meaning she doesn't really see the need to keep the social conventions polite English society expects young women to follow. She smokes and drinks, but not in front of her male relatives. March is about to embark on a new stage of her life. Her father has died and she has sold off the estate and is heading to London to live with her godfather, Sidney Grice, a man she know nothing about.

Grice is a private eye extraordinaire, or as he prefers to call himself a "personal detective." He has an excellent reputation and so can pick and choose his cases.  He is a gruff know-it-all and a snob - a short, slightly built man with a glass eye. Grice and March are visited by Mrs. Dillinger who wants to hire him to investigate the murder of her daughter, Sarah, whose husband William Ashby has been arrested for the murder. Grice declines the case, but March, feeling sorry for the woman agrees to pay Grice out of her personal funds if he takes the case and lets her tag along. He agrees. At the time of Sarah's murder several unsolved murders of young woman had already taken place in London.

Grice begins March's education into private investigation work. Combined with his maid, Molly; Parker, the morgue worker; Harriet, a woman March met on the train to London, and Inspector Pound of the London police, the investigation gets off to a rocky start.  Everyone adds a little bit of information to the clues, but they don't add up.

This is a great book. Filled with quirky characters, the plot line moves quickly through to its conclusion. The humor is borderline snarky, the relationship between all the characters filled with love and exasperation with each other. I will admit that I was surprised by the ending and not in a bad way. This is the first in the Grover Street Detective series and I look forward to more.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul

Like many Allman Brothers fans, I feel like a major part of the band disappeared when guitarist Duane Allman died at the age of 24 after putting together two studio albums and one (massive hit) live LP. And while One Way Out,  Alan Paul's new oral history of the band confirms that indeed the band was assembled as a showcase for Duane's skills (already honed as a session player for musicians such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin), they have succeeded as a unit by adapting skillfully to new musicians while keeping one Allman (Gregg) intact. In this new book, Paul definitely adjusts some preconceptions that I (and probably other fans) have about The Allman Brothers, one of the most successful southern rock bands of all time (although the band members themselves reject the "southern rock" label as being too limiting).

Paul's book pulls from interview with remaining band members Gregg Allman, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, as well as former longtime guitarist and guiding light Dickey Betts and others who have joined the Allman Brothers along the way. Much of the early part of the book establishes the camaraderie among the band members as they attempted to make it as musicians both individually and later as members of what became The Allman Brothers Band (after Duane rejected The Duane Allman Band as not recognizing the fact that they were a larger unit). Their early years living together in The Big House in Macon, Georgia, while trying to eke out a living playing music are captured by band members, crew members and family. This closeness was reflected onstage in their ability to stretch their songs into marathon length, setting the bar for all "jam bands" that followed. Meanwhile, the importance of the extended "family" around the band echoes, and can be observed by the inclusion of the crew on the back cover of the Live at the Fillmore East album.

Drugs and alcohol certainly color this book, as both Duane and bassist Berry Oakley partied hard and died young while Gregg Allman has struggled with alcoholism for years, eventually requiring a liver transplant. Guitarist Dickey Betts, who took over the leadership mantle after Duane died also has had substance abuse problems and while he is interviewed in this book, he is also made out to be a bit of a villain, as he could be abusive and confrontational and would sometimes disappear when required to play dates. Betts does get credit for keeping the band alive after Duane died and keeping the Allman Brothers working as a successful unit, later able to thrive when Betts was voted out of the band in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is how much of a non-presence Gregg Allman has been through the history of the band. While his voice is certainly a distinguishing feature of the band, he's not a prolific songwriter and one gets the impression that he's happy to go along with whatever direction the other members of the band ask. Guitarist Warren Haynes has essentially taken the role of bandleader since Betts left, though with his recently announced plans to leave the band in 2014 it is unclear where that mantle will fall. Gregg Allman recently stated that the Allman Brothers band will retire from touring following some final concerts this year, but I can't imagine that we won't hear from them again.

Paul has put together a good overview of The Allman Brothers Band by bringing together the voices of all of those involved, including people who might not have pleasant things to say about the band. I found that while others discussed the infighting that led to multiple breakups, I would have enjoyed more input from the main culprits during these periods, namely Allman and Betts. That being said, anyone who enjoys the music of The Allman Brothers should be able to learn something about the band from this book, although your preferred parts of the book might correspond with your favorite version of the band.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

During the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as a volunteer with the Russian Jewish community in Chicago. The program was funded by the Jewish United Fund. The volunteers helped families practice English while assisting with the difficult transition to American life. In most cases, families were inter-generational, with grandparents living with children and grandchildren. The experience allowed me to look at American life through the lens of an immigrant. It gave me an appreciation for the freedoms I enjoyed that my Soviet brethren had not.

In addition, I listened to family members recount their experiences with anti-semitism, much of which was state sanctioned prior to the 60s. Having taken my own admission to universities for granted, I learned how entrance into universities in the USSR often required a bribe, as did many government services. Gradually, I came to understand the complex relationship Soviet Jewry had with their motherland and with their new home in America.

Thus it was with a sense of empathy that I read A Replacement Life (2014), by Boris Fishman. In it, he explores the many conflicts - ethical, social, and familial - that face his protagonist, Slava Gelman. After listening to Bob Edwards interview the author, it became evident that Slava is an alter-ego of the author himself.  (Bob Edwards Weekend, July 4, 2014, NPR)

Fishman was born in Belarus in 1979 and came to the United States in 1988 at the age of 9. He became the official English speaker for his parents and grandparents. As a child, and later as an adolescent, he helped them navigate the complicated ways of a new society. When he was only 15, his grandmother asked him to write an appeal to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. She was claiming reparations for her two years as prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during WWII. There were no surviving records from that period. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in 1943 and executed the remaining inhabitants.

Even at that young age, Fishman knew that the lack of record-keeping would encourage deceit. Indeed, it did. In 2010, twelve forgers who invented Holocaust stories were indicted.  Had the scam not been foiled, the German government would have paid upwards of $50 million to people who were never in the camps.  In an interview with Tablet Magazine, Fishman suspends judgment:

If you lived in (the U.S.S.R.), he explains, you couldn't get certain basic things without going around the law. Some people remained honorable and did without; some people lucked out and knew the right people; others just wanted a little more for their families. I'm not talking about Rolls-Royces and gold watches. I'm talking about another pair of shoes or a banana. Tangerines were a once-a-year luxury. Sometimes, you could not get basic things without resorting to light crime.

It is this very dilemma that occupies the heart of A Replacement Life. Slava yearns for a sense of belonging and for the recognition of his writing skills by the literary magazine that employs him. These are not forthcoming. He is gradually drawn into his grandfather's world and begins writing stories - all with kernels of truth - for people not technically recognized as survivors of the Holocaust. He rationalizes that they did, after all, suffer. He becomes a better writer with each document he fabricates. There is just one problem: Slava's actions are illegal, and eventually, he must choose between his interpretation of justice and the law itself.

Boris Fishman has written a poignant and funny novel that examines truth versus family loyalty and explores suffering in its many dimensions.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Gemini by Carol Cassella

Gemini, by Carol Cassella, is an engaging story that focuses around an ethical dilemma in a Seattle Intensive Care Unit. An unidentified woman has been brought from the scene of a hit and run accident to a rural hospital on the Olympic Peninsula. There, something goes terribly amiss in surgery and Jane Doe never regains consciousness. She is air-lifted to the ICU and becomes the patient of Dr. Charlotte Reese.

At this point, the reader is introduced to a parallel story - that of twelve year old Raney and Bo - the boy she befriends. Raney comes from a poor, rural family. Knowing nothing about her father and abandoned by her mother, Raney now lives with her widower grandfather. She is a fearless girl who escapes the harsh realities of her life by painting the beautiful, natural world around her.

By contrast, Bo comes from a wealthy albeit broken home. He is described as a waif-like, sickly boy whose attraction to the independent Raney is strong and immediate. Rainey comes to love him with equal intensity - a love that lasts through her twenties and beyond.

Gradually, the reader learns the relationship between these seemingly unrelated stories.

Gemini uses the genre of medical mystery to explore issues of class, genetics, family, and choice. Her characters - especially Raney - are drawn with depth and compassion. As a practicing anesthesiologist, the author shares some of the life and death issues that may confront a hospital physician.  Moreover, she allows her readers to see both the doctor's and the patient's point-of-view.

Ultimately, Cassella gives a realistic portrayal of the lack of choices faced by the working poor. What happens when family health issues bring personal ambitions for education to a stand-still? And how do individuals deal with life when forces beyond their control intervene?

Gemini explores these and many questions in a story about love, medical ethics and personal responsibility - all packaged into a well-written thriller.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ripper by Isabel Allende

In San Francisco, there have been some very strange murders. The latest one involves a grade school 4th grade gym class discovering a body in the gym. The man, Ed Stanton, was the school security guard. He had been shot through the lead, draped over a piece of gym equipment and assaulted with a baseball bat. The kids were thrilled by the murder; the police, not so much.

Meanwhile a group of 5 teenagers and 1 elderly man are connected through the net and are playing a game of Ripper, which is a role playing game where they adopt alter egos and try to solve the Ripper's crimes. The group members are spread out all over the world - New Jersey, Montreal, New Zealand and California. One member of the group is Amanda whose father happens to be the deputy chief of police and is trying to solve the San Francisco murders. She is also the game master. The elderly man is her grandfather, Blake Johnson. With the latest murder the group decides to try to solve the current murders instead of the Ripper's. A famous local astrologer has predicted a blood bath for San Francisco and it looks like she may be correct.

Amanda has a rather fluid life. Her parents are divorced and she shuttles between her father, the deputy police chief, and her mother a new age masseuse at the local Holistic clinic. Her mother, Indiana, is beautiful  which results in her male clients either falling in love with her or wanting to protect her from all others. Amanda is extraordinarily close to her grandfather.

Amanda's group has been carefully studying the murders. With some inside information they begin to see connections that have so far eluded the notice of the police. The group gets to look from a distance until Amanda's mother goes missing.

Allende has stepped out of her normal milieu with this story. A fast paced thriller, with a likable character in Amanda, Allende has opened up a whole  new venue for herself. The story line is fast paced, the characters engaging. If you have never read Allende try this book.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Sycamore Row, by John Grisham

Sycamore Row is the best kind of legal thriller: great writing, good storyline, and characters that really come alive on the page. Having said that, the book seems even better on audio, thanks to narrator Michael Beck, an actor and native Southerner who has voiced numerous Grisham novels.

This particular Grisham offering, set in 1988 in Mississippi, is a sequel to the author’s first novel, A Time to Kill. Like that book, Grisham’s latest work stars attorney Jake Brigance, who is once again at the heart of a controversial trial.

Before local curmudgeon Seth Hubbard, suffering from lung cancer, hung himself from a sycamore tree, he wrote a hand-written will giving the bulk of his huge estate to his black maid Lettie, and leaving virtually nothing to his adult son and daughter. With their father gone, the kids expected to be millionaires; they have a copy of Hubbard’s will that was written earlier, and that will includes them and doesn't mention Lettie. Obviously, Hubbard’s children have a huge problem with the new will, which was delivered to Attorney Brigance right before the old man did himself in.

What did Lettie do to deserve the majority of his money, asks the dead man’s children, and a lot of the townspeople are wondering the same thing. Was Hubbard out of his mind on pain-numbing drugs when he penned the new will? Or did Lettie coerce him or possibly romance him into leaving his fortune to her? Even her husband has his suspicions, though he is more than happy to think of himself as a future rich man, and he is just one of Lettie’s many relatives who feel her good fortune is theirs too.

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