Tears of the Dragon by Holly Baxter launches what the publisher claims to be a new “cozy” series but which is laced with some good ole American grit. The story opens with our intrepid heroine, Elodie Browne, nervously lunching in the cafeteria of Chicago’s Gower Building with her flighty yet steely chum Bernice. Elodie is nervous because she got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnessed what she is very much afraid was a “bad thing.” Our Miss Browne is advised to forget what she saw and heard by pretty much everyone — Bernice, her somewhat wayward cousin Hugh, her smart sister Maybelle and domestic sister Marie…the list goes on. The trouble is, Elodie can’t forget about it, especially not after she actually witnesses the murder of the man who she heard kidnapped. Enter a gruff but honest red-haired detective named Archie, who immediately rubs Ellie the wrong way. You just know that Archie & Elie will end up together, and they do. Their essential niceness makes a nice contrast to the gangsters and grit so often associated with Chicago in the 1930s. Ellie & Archie’s goodness is balanced by the evilness of “them” — Al Capone, Bugs Moran, and a whole passel of Chinese gangsters bent on introducing heroin to the streets of Chicago. Lots of gunfire and a big fire are offset by good coffee and homemade blueberry muffins. Sound like strange bedfellows? Well, not in this sweet little story. Not the cleverest story I’ve ever read, but the characters have potential.
The Grave Maurice by Martha Grimes
I’ve been a fan of Richard Jury, the main character in Martha Grimes’ “pub” series, for many years, and I was completely deflated at the end of her last Jury book which left the detective lying in a pool of blood along the Thames. Did he die or didn’t he? The publication of The Grave Maurice answers that question in the first chapter, as we find Jury in hospital recovering from his wounds. To my even greater delight, Grimes has blended the plot of one of my all-time favorite books, Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, with this new addition to the pub series. Jury is given a copy of Tey’s book to read while still bedridden, and is encouraged to embark on a new case of his own. Nell Ryder, the daughter of his doctor, disappeared 2 years before and her abduction has caused untold amounts of grief for all her family and friends. Jury agrees to review the elements of the case while still in the hospital, using sidekick Melrose Plant to ferret out information and interview the family. As in all of Grimes’ books, the plot is tight, the writing loose and witty, and the characters by turns wonderfully funny, sadly pathetic, and richly eccentric. Definitely another winner from Grimes, if only because Jury is back! Now when will BBC or PBS make this a Mystery! series?
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
This novel is based on the life of the supposed historical figure Pope Joan. Born in 9th-century Germany, Joan demonstrates her academic brilliance early but must hide her learning from her missionary father, who holds women in lower esteem than cows. Tutored first by her older brother and then a Greek scholar, Joan eventually secures a place at a school in Dorstadt. To protect herself after a Viking raid, Joan assumes her dead brother’s identity and essentially becomes a man. Suddenly the intelligence that once brought her ridicule and punishment results in respect and authority. From the monastery in Fulda to Vatican politics in Rome, Joan eventually secures the church’s highest office.
As a Catholic and product of 12 years of Catholic school, I have to say I was skeptical when I first heard about this book. Sr. Delphine sure never talked about a female pope Church History 101! However, it seems to me that Cross has done her homework. She spent 7 years researching and writing this book, and since its’ publication, several other non-fiction works have appeared chronicling the existence of Pope Joan, or Pope John Anglicus. Cross has successfully combined history with adventure, intrigue and romance, which are all building blocks of a successful story. She also is a fantastic writer and tells Joan’s story with restraint and eloquence. It has made me wonder how many other women in disguise held positions of power in medieval times. Highly recommended.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in the Land of Oz, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil? Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
I had a hard time putting this one down. I’ve always been more fascinated with the “bad” people in books and film, and real life, too, I guess. They are just so much more interesting than, oh, people who never jaywalk. Elphaba is no exception. She’s different, right from the moment she’s born, and it’s not just her green skin (speculation is that Mama slept with an elf but she can’t remember), but her inquisitive mind and opinionated soul. All the familiar characters show up here, along with some new ones that add spice and humor to the story. The questions Maguire tackles, such as how do we ever really know true evil unless we experience true goodness, and who directs our destiny – unknown forces (the Unnamed God in Oz) or do we control our own path – string the narrative together and build up to what I thought was the only weak point of the book – the demise of the Witch at Dorothy’s hand. A good read.