Danger, danger everywhere

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE RISING SEA. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

No. 15 in the NUMA files books is everything fans have come to expect from Clive Cussler.

The Rising Sea is a fast-paced thriller, with lots of action and danger. There are some unexpected developments, some evil villains, a plot that strains credulity at least a little – but in an entertaining way. As a bonus, there’s a lot of interesting scientific information, and a bit of ancient legend. That the story is set firmly in the world of today or maybe tomorrow only makes it more credible.

Kurt Austin, Joe Zavala and the rest of the crew at the National Underwater and Marine Agency are studying the alarming pace of sea rise. The rise has accelerated beyond what can be explained by climate change and glacier melt, to the point that many areas of the world and billions of people could face imminent danger.

When their research alerts them to problems associated with a mysterious underwater mining operation in the East China Sea, they set out to investigate.

They quickly run afoul of an international plot to upset the balance of power in the Pacific, and Chinese conspirators who rely on both cutting-edge technology and a ruthless assassin.

Kurt and the NUMA team face grave danger in Japan, Shanghai, on and under the seas and on a secret artificial island as they race to try to save the world.

This is an exciting, interesting and sometimes surprising tale, one of Cussler’s best. Sure, the NUMA books, like all those in his publishing empire, follow something of a formula, but only in the broad sense. Each story is new and laced with fascinating information. If it’s a formula, it’s a formula for successful entertainment.

Scott Brick, as always, reads with the perfect tone and timing, not adding any unnecessary, artificial drama to Cussler’s dashing tale.The Rising Sea makes a fine vacation read, and the audio version would be a great way to enliven a drive to the beach – where, we hope, the sea level won’t have risen too much.

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To have and have not…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOVE AND RUIN. By Paula McLain. Random House Audio. Read by January LaVoy. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

Paula McLain is brave, choosing to write historical fiction/memoir about well-known people about whom much has already been written and movies have been made. She’s also very good at what she does, and that’s why her books so captivating.

Her latest novel, “Love and Ruin,” is obviously a labor of love: McLain greatly admires and sympathizes with her protagonist, Martha Gellhorn, who has the rather dubious distinction of having been the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.

If you Google Martha Gellhorn, though, the articles begin not with the Hemingway connection – as is the case with the other three wives – but with her accomplishments as one of the foremost war correspondents of the 20thcentury and one of the first successful female war correspondents.

As McLain makes clear, Gellhorn would have liked that description.

Gellhorn lived to be nearly 90 and trekked the world covering wars for the better part of six decades.

McLain’s book, though it gives a brief account of the rest of Gellhorn’s remarkable life in an Author’s Note, focuses on the stormy years when she was involved with Hemingway, from their meeting in Key West in 1936 through their affair, marriage, separation and divorce in 1945.  She writes about their love, but also their rivalry, ultimate betrayals and the choices Gellhorn had to make to be able to pursue her remarkable career.

McLain has dealt with Hemingway successfully before, in her best-selling “The Paris Wife,” about Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway.

She obviously has done extensive research into both Hemingway and Gellhorn. What makes her novels succeed is that, while staying true to what is known, she lets her imagination fill in the conversations, thoughts and emotions that aren’t a part of the record.

Gellhorn’s story would be fascinating enough for several books even if she’d never become involved with Hemingway. A well-bred doctor’s daughter from St. Louis, her independent, determined, ambitious nature got her into adventures and predicaments.

Before she met Hemingway, she’d had an unhappy affair with a married man, and that experience left her wary. At first, she tried to convince herself and others that she and Hemingway – who was several years older and called her “daughter” in those early days – were just friends. He was already a famous author, and she was flattered that he noticed her and enjoyed talking with her.

But when they found themselves together in exciting and dangerous circumstances covering the Spanish Civil War, friendship became something more.

Hemingway was still married to his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, the mother of his two younger sons.

McLain takes us into the relationship as Gellhorn and Hemingway become increasingly involved and eventually marry. Though their passion was strong, the relationship was never easy. They were, in many ways, rivals, as Gellhorn fought to make a name for herself both as a fiction writer and as a war correspondent.

When Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tollsto great acclaim, she struggled with feelings of envy and insecurity. Hemingway loved to party and seemed to have a great need for public acclaim, while Gellhorn often would rather they could just be alone together.

Most of all, she wanted to pursue her own career, but that ambition, too, caused friction, because Hemingway needed the adulation not only of his fans but also of his wife.

The accounts of Gellhorn’s adventures as a war correspondent are well worth reading.

So are the passages where she struggles with decisions about whether and how to balance her life so that she can have both her career and her marriage. Occasionally, the terminology sounds as though it belongs in a feminist debate a few decades later, but for the most part Gellhorn’s dilemma is convincing.

This is a very good book about a remarkable woman, a pioneering and courageous journalist, and the tumultuous years when her life was caught up in the world of a remarkable, complex man. Both were strong personalities, forces of nature, and their coming together makes for a tumultuous story.

That story, with lots of action and adventure as well as emotion, lends itself well to the audio book format. January LaVoy does an outstanding job of narrating this fine historical novel.

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Hold your breath…

Briar Patch Books is the beneficiary when Bob Moyer goes on a reading/reviewing tear. Here’s his latest contribution.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BOMB MAKER. By Thomas Perry. Mysterious Press. 372 pages. $26.

Thomas Perry usually writes thrillers that, like the standalone The Old Manor the series with Jane Whitefield, take your breath away from turning the pages so fast. The Bomb Makeris different.

This book makes you hold your breath.

He builds intricate bombs with astonishing kill capacity, and then delivers them in an intricate plan that blows up as many of his intended victims as possible. He has only one chosen target — the LAPD Bomb Squad. When 14 of the squad die, the authorities call in Dick Stahl, former commander who runs his own consulting firm. He proves to be a perfect foil for The Bomb Maker: He understands how to put a bomb together, how to take it apart, and how to get inside The Bomb Maker’shead.

Of course, it’s not smooth sailing to the noisy conclusion. Politics forces the police to remove Stahl from his position, with drastic results. Stahl himself complicates the matter by developing a bond with one of his team members, which puts her in harm’s way.

It’s that relationship that brings depth to the characterizations here. It’s quite a deep bond, beyond a one-night stand because of his strength: “She had realized within fifteen minutes that her only chance of making it to the end of watch that night was to do what he asked and to make herself be what he wanted. She had to see with her perfect vision into a dim space and extract the component he wanted out, reach into the hell-made contraption farther because her hands and arms were smaller and thinner… She had concentrated on seeing exactly what he saw and thinking what he thought.”

To bolster his efforts, The Bomb Maker sells his services to an unidentified foreign country, which both bankrolls him and backs up his effort to eliminate Stahl. He’s a formidable foe for Stahl, and Perry details the cold-blooded killer’s exacting process:  “He brought out ammonium nitrate, acetic anhydride, paraformaldehyde, distilled water and boron fluoride. He was going to have to do lots of stirring and heating and cooling for the next part of the process, which had to be done within very narrow temperature ranges…” and so on for another half-page. Passages like those make the reader grateful that Perry, not they, went into The Bomb Maker’smind to get them.

The conclusion features an explosion in which “…the body parts had been thrown too far, or the force and temperature at the center of the explosion had cremated the men and scattered their ashes.”  Then, and only then, can the reader take a breath.

 

 

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Not about the bad guys

Bob Moyer is catching up with all the new books he missed while off gallivanting. Here’s the latest, No. 17, in Robert Crais’ long-running  and best-selling Elvis Cole and Joe Pike private-eye series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE WANTED. By Robert Crais. Putnam. 322 pages. $28.

The dust jacket says it’s an Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novel. Not really. Elvis does the heavy lifting, and Joe drops by to pull his bacon out of the fire from time to time. The book isn’t even about Elvis, either.

It’s about a boy.

A distraught mother hires Elvis to find out just what kind of crime her son has been committing. She has evidence of possessions he can’t possibly afford. Without too much trouble, Elvis finds out the boy is part of a small gang of kids who have been burglarizing upscale homes, and selling the products of their chicanery. Elvis sets out to get the boy and his cohorts a deal if they turn themselves in.

Unfortunately, the two meanest, and likely cleverest bad guys Robert Crais has ever conceived are a couple of steps ahead of Elvis and a dangerous step behind the boy. Obviously, those crazy kids took something that somebody wants back badly, and nothing seems to stop them. A trail of dead bodies turns up behind the two wisecracking, bizzaro versions of Joe and Elvis. Using state of the art surveillance, the villains close in on the last two of the gang, only to be thwarted by a last-minute turn of the plot, and the timely appearance of Joe Pike.

The narrative here is sustained by a growing connection and concern between Elvis and the boy. Elvis almost lost the son of his former lover, and the imminent danger the boy now faces hits home with him. With as much emotional depth as he’s ever put into a book, Crais has made sure this book is not about the bad guys.

It’s about a boy.

 

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What meets the eye

He’s back! After a couple of months gallivanting to Germany, Massachusetts and elsewhere, plus doing poetry things, the inimitable Bob Moyer is back reviewing books for Briar Patch Books.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE. By Celeste Ng. Penguin Press. 338 pages. $27.

Celeste Ng’s second book has hung near the top of the best-seller lists for seven months now. There’s a good reason —

She’s a magician.

With a sleight of handwriting, she conjures a Shaker Heights, Ohio, of 1997 that may or may not look like the town of the same name where she grew up. It’s a moot point, because her suburb reeks with reality —the facades, the posturing, the biases and underlying tensions that anyone who has lived in such a community can attest to, and people visiting for the first time can learn from. With no little sympathy at the same time, she takes on territory that John Updike staked out years ago, and matches him word for word.

Ng pulls two people out of a Volkswagen Rabbit and drops them into this nirvana, where “… purchase … includes protection forever against depreciation and unwelcome change.”  Their entrance introduces just that — unwelcome change. Artist Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into this idyllic bubble and rent a house from the Richardsons. Mia makes photo art pieces that sometimes sell, sometimes don’t, through an agent in New York. She has a noted disregard for the status quo. Pearl is literally taken in by the Richardson children.

A master of misdirection, Ng keeps our focus on one of those children, Izzy, for the first part of the book. As part of her literary prestidigitation, the author also starts the story at the end — the Richardson’s house is on fire, Mia and Pearl have already puttered out of town, and Izzy set Little Fires Everywhere before she, too, took off.

As she works her way back to the beginning, the author identifies issues that will upset the well-ordered community — the weight of secrets, racism, abortion and unrequited ambition.

When a custody battle breaks out over a Chinese-American baby, Mia sides with the mother against the community, and Mrs. Richardson makes a choice that will have unexpected results:  She uncovers Mia’s mysterious past.

That poignant backstory takes us into deep questions of identity and art, which play out in small but devastating bursts throughout the final pages of the book. As it turns out, it’s Mia’s presence and the pieces she puts together that set off Little Fires Everywhere, fires that do much more damage than the ones Izzy set.

This book is one for our age, if not the ages. Abracadabra!

 

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There’s nothing like a murder to make life worth living

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GRAVE’S A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE. By Alan Bradley. Random House Audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle. 10 hours; 8 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Delacorte Press. 363 pages. $26.

Things are grim in Flavia de Luce’s world. A few months earlier, her father died unexpectedly, leaving Flavia and her two older sisters orphans. Aunt Felicity is determined to sell Buckshaw, the crumbling estate where the family has always lived, even though it now belongs to Flavia. Making matters worse, Aunt Felicity wants to haul Flavia off to London to live with her.

Feeling that they all need a change of scenery and an escape from Aunt Felicity, Dogger, the faithful servant and longtime friend of their father, takes the girls on a rowing holiday. Flavia, the world’s foremost 12-year-old chemist and sleuth, is delighted at the prospect of visiting the village of Volesthorpe, the site of St.-Mildred’s-in-the Marsh church, where the notorious Canon Whitbread had poisoned three female parishioners with communion wine one Sunday morning. How exciting!

Even more exciting, as Flavia absentmindedly trails her hand in the river water, she catches hold of something. At first, she envisions winning fame for landing a prize fish by hand – but then she realizes what she’s gotten hold of is a human head, attached to a body.

Oh, joy! There’s nothing better than a murder to solve to make Flavia feel that life is worth living again after all.

Thus starts what Flavia will come to call “the most complicated case I had ever come across,” and one of the best books in this delightful series. With Dogger’s help, Flavia begins to uncover the village’s secrets. Before long, she will be trying to solve more than one murder, and she will find herself in mortal danger.

Flavia is such an endearing heroine, despite her (often acknowledged) tendency to be something of a brat and a busybody, if doing so suits her purposes. She’s a precocious, very bright girl with an extensive knowledge of chemistry, but she’s also a lonely child.

A fringe benefit of the visit to Volesthorpe is that she makes a friend – a boy who’s the son of the undertaker, and like Flavia, growing up without a mother. He’s a little younger than she, and equally unusual. Another plus is that she and her sister Daffy patch up their differences at least temporarily and join forces.

At book’s end, Flavia is looking forward to the future, something she would have thought impossible just days earlier. And her legions of fans are looking forward also, to the next book chronicling her adventures.

As I’ve written before, these books are so addictive I take a double dose: As soon as the print version is out, I read it, enjoying every nuance of the mystery and quirk of Flavia’s personality. Then I listen to the audio version, savoring small details I missed in my first eager read, but most of all, relishing the wonderful accents and characterizations Jayne Entwistle uses to bring Flavia and family and friends to life.

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Lies and other tangled webs

punishmentReviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES. By Elizabeth George. Penguin Audio. 23 hours; 18 CDs. Read by Simon Vance. $55. Also available in print from Viking.

It’s been 30 years since Elizabeth George’s first introduced us to Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, in A Great Deliverance, her widely praised debut novel. It’s been three years since her most recent novel, A Banquet of Consequences, was published. Over the decades, Lynley and the series have had their ups and downs, including a bleak, dark stretch when Lynley’s pregnant wife, Helen, was murdered, and then both he and his inimitable sidekick, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, seemed bent on self-destruction.

Now there’s good news and more good news. There’s a new novel out starring Lynley and Havers. And The Punishment She Deserves is one of the best ever in the series. A Banquet of Consequences, the 2015 novel, was the most enjoyable one in a while, with Lynley back in good form and even Havers more or less behaving herself.

The Punishment She Deserves is even better, a well plotted, complex novel that’s both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

Havers is still on a short leash, and it’s obvious that the higher-ups would be delighted if she gave them an excuse to banish her from Scotland Yard to some distant village. To that end, she’s assigned to go with her boss, Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, to the town of Ludlow to look into the apparent suicide of the much-respected local church deacon, Ian Druitt.

Druitt died in police custody, apparently having hanged himself after being hauled in for questioning about shocking allegations. His father, who is well connected, does not believe Druitt would have killed himself, much less committed the crime. A member of Parliament wants Scotland Yard to review the report on the death in custody.

Ardery is hoping that, during their time working closely together, Havers will stray into some of the disobedient and disrespectful behavior that’s gotten her into so much trouble in the past. But Havers, normally as rough as Lynley is aristocratic, is determined to be a model underling.

The problem is, despite her flaws, Havers is a very good police officer, and once she’s on a scent, she’s as determined as a bulldog. Early on in their investigations, Havers becomes convinced that Druitt did not kill himself, and that there’s quite a lot in Ludlow that needs a closer look. Unfortunately, Ardery, distracted by her personal problems, just wants to close the case and get back to London as quickly as possible.

When they do return to London, and Havers faces a dilemma about what to put in the report Ardery orders her to prepare, Lynley takes action in a way that could get them both in serious trouble.

As a result, Lynley and Havers are dispatched to Ludlow to settle things one way or another – and quickly.

The more the two follow leads and ask questions, the more secrets they discover under the surface of Ludlow, a seemingly quiet college town. As the case grows ever more complicated, they fear that they won’t meet the deadline that’s been imposed on them.

The book’s title takes on several layers of meaning, and it’s not just Havers who’s threatened with punishment.

The Punishment She Deserves is rich with characters, well beyond the familiar Lynley, Havers and Ardery. As readers, with the help of Lynley and Havers, try to figure out what really happened in Ludlow, other stories begin to emerge.

The book is long – 23 hours as an audio book, more than 700 pages in print – but it doesn’t seem that way, because it’s so rich with twists, insights and subplots. There is much to think about: the lies people tell, including to themselves; what it means to be a good parent; friendship; duty; justice…

And because the book is so well plotted and the characters so fully developed, it’s easy to follow Simon Vance’s expert reading on the audio version.

By the end, you will be so satisfied with this outstanding book in a fine series that – dare I say it? – you might feel like dancing, just as Barbara Havers is doing. Really. You have to read this book to believe it.

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No. 20: Inspector Rutledge, at his best

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GATE KEEPER. By Charles Todd. William Morrow. 306 pages. $26.99.

gateIt’s hard to believe that The Gate Keeper is the 20th entry in Charles Todd’s mystery series starring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a British World War I veteran who’s now a Scotland Yard detective.

But A Test of Wills, the debut novel, appeared in 1996, and Todd has been producing new volumes with enough regularity to please his many fans. Several years ago, Todd introduced a second series, featuring Bess Crawford, a young British nurse in World War I. (Todd is, we all discovered a few books in, really two people, a mother and son writing team who live on the East Coast of the U.S. but love to travel to England for literary research.)

Inspector Rutledge, as fans well know, suffers from what today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, lingering emotional and psychological effects stemming from his role as an officer in the Great War. Specifically, the voice of Hamish, a young Scottish corporal whom Rutledge had to execute when he refused to follow a battlefield order to charge into no-man’s land, lives in his head.

Although I loved the first few books in the series, the intrusive voice of Hamish annoyed me at times. Perhaps Rutledge used the device more in the earlier works; perhaps I just got used to the idea. In any event, Hamish’s presence now seems to be an integral and not overdone part of the stories.

Why do I love these books? In part, it’s because of the setting. England in the years after World War I is a fascinating place and time, as the old order, accepted for centuries, seemed to be crumbling all around, and society was adjusting to the devastating loss of many of its young men. Fans of “Downton Abbey” will recognize the time of social and economic upheaval portrayed in these novels. There’s a melancholy that haunts Rutledge even at his best moments, a melancholy that also pervades England after the horrors and loss of the war.

The Inspector Rutledge books are also just good mysteries in the fine tradition of British detective fiction, and Todd sends Rutledge on investigations to an interesting variety of towns and villages.

With any series of this length, some books are more satisfying than others, but even the weaker ones – sometimes the mysteries and cast of characters get a tad confusing – are well worth the read.

The Gate Keeper is one of the better books in an outstanding series.

As the story begins, Rutledge has just given his sister, Frances, away in marriage. What should be a happy occasion is unsettling for him, because through his struggles to adapt to life and his police career after the war, Frances has been one of his anchors. So, rather than just retiring for the night in his London flat after the festivities wind down, Rutledge heads out aimlessly for a long drive in the country.

Miles into the countryside, he’s jolted out of his dark thoughts by the sight of another motorcar stopped in the middle of the road, with a woman in evening dress standing beside it. The woman has blood on her hands, and at her feet is a dead man, a shooting victim.

Thus Rutledge becomes involved in a murder investigation in the village of Wolfpit in Suffolk, over the objections of the local authorities. He successfully convinces Scotland Yard that he should work the case, as he was the first to come upon the scene, but on some level he knows he’s also glad to have a reason to postpone his return to London.

His inquiry into the death of the man, a bookseller named Stephen Wentworth, is anything but clear-cut. The first suspect, the woman whom Wentworth was driving home after a party that lasted well into the night, insists that she is innocent.

Rutledge hears strangely conflicting stories about Wentworth. Most people have nothing but the best to say about him and cannot believe that he would have done anything to provoke a murder. But his own mother, and his former fiancé, describe him very differently.

As Rutledge tries to figure out the truth about Wentworth, and discover anything in his life that might have led someone to lie in wait to shoot him, another man is shot to death – another man who seems to have no enemies.

It’s a difficult puzzle, complicated by deceit, jealousy, greed and vicious, destructive hatred. Rutledge is determined to figure it out. This aspect of life, at least, he ought to be able to make sense of – and, indeed, he does, in fine fashion.

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Prepare for turbulence

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT. By Chris Bohjalian. Random House Audio. Read by Erin Spencer and Grace Experience, with Mark Deakins. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print form Doubleday.

flightChris Bohjalian is one of my favorite contemporary authors, not only because he’s a good writer, but also because his books are so diverse. I have not read all his 20 novels, but I’ve enjoyed every one I have come across. He cannot be accused of formulaic writing.

This one is an up-to-the-minute story that fits more or less into the broad thriller/suspense/mystery genre. It’s also a book that ultimately addresses questions as to whether some people are beyond redemption.

This is the story of Cassandra Bowden, a flight attendant with a major airline. Cassie, we quickly learn, has a serious drinking problem. She’s nearing 40, still good looking, still able to do her job, but she frequently drinks to the point of blacking out, and she often wakes up hung over, in bed with a strange man, or trying to recall what went on with a man who’s no longer in evidence. Often, she’s disgusted with herself, but not enough to change her ways.

Cassie seems to be heading for disaster, and hardly has this book begun than she finds it. She wakes up in a hotel room in Dubai that’s not the one the airline booked for its crew. Fighting her headache and other consequences of the previous night’s excesses, she looks at the man in bed beside her – and finds that he’s dead, his throat cut, blood everywhere.

What to do? There’s no way Cassie wants to wind up in jail in Dubai, or even dealing with the legal system there, so she begins what will become a spiraling pattern of cover-up and lies.

At several points, she considers admitting what’s happened, calling the U.S. Embassy, doing something that most people would consider right. But always, she talks herself out of it.

She lies to the others on the flight crew. She lies to the FBI when they meet the plane in New York. She lies to the airline union’s representative, who tries to help her. She lies to herself, too.

She’s not even really sure that she didn’t kill the man herself, and if she didn’t, who did? And why did the murderer spare her?

But things keep getting more complicated, more ominous, and soon she’s seeking the help of a lawyer.

There’s more to Cassie’s self-destructive behavior than just binge drinking and sleeping around, however. Sometimes, even when sober, she makes reckless decisions and does what seems like the worst possible thing.

Soon, she’s exasperating her lawyer and others who try to help her, and in the process, she exasperates the reader, too.

I sometimes have trouble sticking with a book in which I don’t much care for or about the protagonist, and I began to think I might abandon Cassie and her story.

Even Bohjalian doesn’t seem to like her much, and he, too, seems impatient with her. She’s a drunk, a liar and a petty thief without a lot of redeeming qualities, although she does genuinely care about her sister’s children and the stray cats at the animal shelter.

But Bohjalian is a very good writer, and there was always something there – the mystery, what would happen, what was really going on – to keep me going. There’s the Russian factor: Who is this woman calling herself Miranda who showed up at the hotel room during the drunken night before the murder, and who is Viktor? What was the man Cassie found dead in bed with her really doing?

Is Cassie right to think she’s being watched and followed in New York?

In the end, I was glad I’d kept going. Bohjalian accomplishes the feat of delivering more than one twist that will have your head reeling, even as you say, “Of course.”

The audio version makes good use of three readers, one for Cassie’s parts of the story, one for those seen through the eyes of “Miranda,” and one for the FBI reports. In spite of yourself, in spite of Cassie, the story draws you in.

This is not one of my favorites of Bohjalian’s many accomplished novels, but it’s certainly one that’s worth a listen or a read.

 

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History and mystery

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

JEFFERSON’S DAUGHTERS: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America. By Catherine Kerrison. Books on Tape (Penguin Random House Audio). Read by Tavia Gilbert. 17 hours; 14 CDs. Also available in print from Ballantine Books.

DaughtersThis ambitious book by Catherine Kerrison, who teaches history at Villanova University, is, in a way, several books in one.

Kerrison combines her two scholarly interests – colonial and Revolutionary American history, and women’s and gender history – in a remarkable feat of research and also of imagination.

The book is all nonfiction, to be sure, but where there are gaps in the information available, parts of the story that, apparently, no amount of diligent research can fill, Kerrison surmises what she cannot know.

By book’s end, Kerrison has made her case that the unknowable parts of the story are at the heart of the era she’s describing – a time in American history when slaves and women, even white women, were not really considered to be among those people who had been “created equal” and whose voices were worth hearing.

Early on, the book is an interesting account of what’s known of the lives of Martha and Maria Jefferson, the only two children born to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, who survived to become adults, or even teenagers. Widowed early, Jefferson took considerable interest in the education of his daughters, but because he was so embroiled in the affairs of the colonies as they became a nation, he was often separated from the girls.

Drawing on available sources, Kerrison can tell us most about Martha, the elder by several years, who accompanied her father to Paris and attended a convent school for well-to-do young European ladies there. Martha married young after returning to Virginia with Jefferson, raised a large family, spent much time at Monticello and lived into her 60s, with her latter years complicated by Jefferson’s having lost his fortune and their home,

A bit less is known about Maria, the younger sister, who was left with relatives in Virginia before eventually being brought to Paris for a much shorter stay. Kerrison describes the distinct differences in the two sisters’ experiences and how those experiences helped shape them into very different young women. Sadly, Maria died early after the last of several problematic pregnancies, leaving one child who had almost no memories of her, and little written record.

Kerrison’s recounting of the brief life of Maria and the early years of Martha, while fascinating, get confusing at times, especially when listening to the audio version of the book. I found myself wondering at what point in Martha’s experience various things were transpiring in Maria’s life, particularly after Martha had married and had a rapidly expanding family.

Kerrison begins to delve more into educated speculation when writing about the life of Jefferson’s other daughter, Harriet, who was born to the slave Sally Hemings, with whom he had a long relationship. That relationship began when Sally, then a teenager herself, was chosen to accompany young Maria on her voyage across the Atlantic to join Jefferson and Martha in Paris. The Hemings family already had complicated ties with the Jeffersons; Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife; they shared a father.

Living in Paris where laws dealing with slavery were different, young Sally was apparently able to strike a deal with Jefferson that cemented the Hemingses’ special status at Monticello. Harriet, born in the early days of Jefferson’s presidency, had a privileged childhood for a slave. Sources indicate that although she was never officially freed, she was allowed to leave Monticello when she was 21 and given some help on her trip north. Her younger brother, Madison, offered the information in the 1870s that his sister was “passing” as white and was married to a prominent man in Washington, D.C.

Kerrison had some basic information about Harriet’s early years from the records Jefferson kept, in which he briefly mentioned her in his accounts dealing with slaves. But much of what she tells us about Harriet is based on information she knows about other slaves and life at Monticello. She used such phrases as “might have” frequently.

Inspired by Madison’s claims, Kerrison pored through available records in the Washington area, trying to establish Harriet’s new, white identity. That part of the book becomes more like an academic detective story than biography or history.

Toward the end of the book, she philosophizes about the lives of slaves and women at the time and, to a lesser extent, today. Throughout the telling, she strives to be fair, pointing out the ways the white Jefferson daughters’ lives and fortunes were limited by their sex, but also pointing out how much better off they were than slave women.

Jefferson does not look particularly admirable in this book. Kerrison bluntly talks about how the education he wanted for his two white daughters was nothing like that he wanted for his sons. He never would have considered including them in the university he established at Charlottesville, except on social occasions. They were to be educated for their role in society, which was to be wives and mothers and ornamental additions to social occasions. And she bluntly talks about his attitudes toward his slaves, not accepting the often-expressed notion that he was always a benevolent master. Although there were rumors and even news articles about the belief that the “yellow children” at Monticello were his, and although he apparently afforded them special status, he never acknowledged them.

The effect is to present Jefferson as a visionary with high ideals, the author of the Declaration of Independence – but also a man of his times and place, a plantation owner in Virginia, who apparently did not think that equality and freedom should apply to anyone other than white men.

The earlier parts of the book will probably be more pleasing to readers and listeners who like history as story than will later chapters. Overall, though, this is much more an academic book than a popular history. It is a book that will be informative for the majority of Americans who have only a superficial knowledge of Jefferson’s personal life and thought provoking for anyone who takes the time to read it.

 

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