Friday, July 30, 2010


The White Garden
By Stephanie Barron
Random House/Bantam TP2009,
318 pages
ISBN: 978-0-553-3877-9

I scarcely know how to begin, not something a reviewer should admit publically, I suppose. This wonderfully realized and written novel is a first class literary mystery. It deals with a three-week period in l941 that marks the end of a troubled life, the life of Virginia Woolf. It is serendipitous that this novel comes to my hand at a time that epitomizes a good deal of what she was all about. In a word, independence. Independence for women and independence for writers.

Virginia Woolf was an English writer, essayist and literary critic of the early Twentieth Century. Her parents did not send her to school. She was entirely self-taught and apparently randomly tutored by her literary critic father. She was a major influence on the kind of novels being written today, yet she was always, always, self-published. Hogarth Press, established by Woolf and her husband, Leonard, a political theorist of that era, in their kitchen, published Virginia's writings along with those of E.M. Forester, and Sigmund Freud, among many others. Growing up she knew people like Henry James, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot. Her father, Leslie Stephen's, first wife was the daughter of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.

In addition to her literary credentials as an accomplished novelist, she was a prolific essayist who published over 500 essays. Virginia Wolf helped coalesce the famous (or infamous) Bloomsbury Group, a collection of social, political and economic theorists of varying stripes, including artists, critics, philosophers and writers who wrote, debated, loved, married and argued life throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Woolf was sexually abused by a relative as a child, and clearly had mental problems during her lifetime. Her companions through life, including relatives, were mostly liberated intellectuals who ignored social constraints. On March 28, 1941, she disappeared from her home. Three weeks later, her body was discovered in the nearby river Ouse which had already been extensively searched. Her body was promptly cremated and there was no funeral ceremony, public or private.

Which brings us to this novel. Sixty years after Woolf's death, master garden and landscape designer, Jo Bellamy arrives in England. She is doing research for a wealthy client who wants her to recreate a famous garden of white flowers and plants at his Long Island Estate. Jo is trying to recover from her grandfather's sudden suicide. The celebrated White Garden of the title is located at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was created by Woolf's friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West.

What Bellamy discovers at Sissinghurst has the potential to set decades of literary analysis and speculation on its collective ear. Whilst grubbing about in some boxes in one of the garden sheds, Jo comes upon a diary which appears to have been written by Virginia Woolf. Well and good, the problem is the first entry is dated the day after Virginia Woolf is supposed to have drowned herself. Moreover, there appears to be a connection between the castle, the garden, Woolf and Jo's dead grandfather. Shocked and amid a growing desire to learn more about her grandfather's youth in Kent, Jo Bellamy sets out on a cross-country odyssey to try to authenticate the diary and uncover her grandfather's connection to one of the most famous feminists and literary icons of the past century.

The novel is wonderfully written and mostly moves at an ever-increasing pace as Bellamy encounters an array of character who are far more interested in their own aggrandizement than in helping Jo. The diary is stolen, Jo has help from several people with questionable motives and engages in some pretty far-fetched antics in order to follow some tantalizingly obscure clues.Ultimately of course, some of the questions surrounding the diary and the last three weeks of Virginia Woolf's life are resolved, but not all.
The author, skillfully evoking a past era of English letters and philosophical thought, has provided a rich and thought-provoking experience.The novel is written with grace and is rich in atmosphere and history. It is presented as a carefully wrought piece that could be true, and that climaxes in a stunning and most satisfying conclusion.

Carl Brookins
Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


BYLINE: Gina Webb
For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Human trafficking --- modern-day slavery --- is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, generating an estimated $9.5 billion every year. According to the U.S. Department of State, 600,000 to 800,000 people are bought and sold across international borders each year; half are children, most are female.

Atlanta's airports and transit systems create an ideal environment for traffickers to move victims and stay one step ahead of the police. Low-income neighborhoods are easy targets --- with few resources for extensive search efforts --- and so are high-risk children who won't be missed, such as runaways and foster children.

Or, as cop-turned-missing-children's advocate Moriah Dru calls them: "Troubled kids. My kind of kids." The kind of kids that have been disappearing from Atlanta's historic Cabbagetown neighborhood in
Gerrie Ferris Finger's debut mystery, "The End Game."

Dru runs Child Trace, the organization she formed after leaving the police force, and she's called into action when two more children go missing. This time the circumstances are too suspicious to ignore: After a house fire that kills Ed and Wanda Barnes, their young foster children, sisters Jessie, 9, and Dottie, 7, are nowhere to be found.

Dru joins forces with ex-partner Rick Lake, Atlanta PD Homicide Unit, to look into what they at first believe is a local crime. Before long, Dru gets a tip that the girls may be victims of a child sex ring with eager clients in South America. Dru and Lake have less than 24 hours to find the sisters.

End Game" won the 2009 Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel award, which celebrates the "cozy" genre. Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers --- old lace, small villages, and the ever-present teapot, the trademark of the cozy. Traditionally, cozies avoid gratuitous violence and explicit sex. So, how to write about something so much dirtier than a nice clean-cut murder under those conditions?

Finger carries it off by keeping the kids and their abductors offstage and the action centered on the intense but relatively bloodless hunt. The action takes place during a single day during which Dru and Lake rarely venture far from the scene of the crime --- their house-to-house interviews of witnesses and suspects constitute a walking tour of Cabbagetown.

Punchy dialogue and sly humor keep things moving, and an "eenie meenie miney moe" of neighborhood witnesses --- a prying spinster, a wrongly-convicted child molester, a store-owner who likes to dress up as Santa Claus, even the oily head of child services --- come across as all the shadier for being unlikely suspects.

Dru is a strong narrator whom we get to know through the investigation --- her questions and reactions prove that her heart goes out to hobos, the homeless, and the throwaway kids --- but Finger never allows us far enough into her head to know what drives her. Instead, our closest glimpse of Dru's emotions is of her fierce jealousy toward a rival for Lake's affections in a limp subplot that detracts from the desperate hunt for the girls.

Similarly, what we know about Rick Lake is limited to what Dru tells us: "Lake's daddy had been a cop, like Lake, and a suicide, like my daddy"--- but after dropping bombs like this, she segues back into the action. It's a missed opportunity to use the couple's backgrounds and relationship, a la Karin Slaughter or Tana French, to add depth to the story. Maybe a sequel will offer more insight into what makes these two tick.

Finger, who grew up in Missouri and now lives on the Georgia coast, spent 20 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she edited the columns of late humorist Lewis Grizzard and covered local and national news.

End Game"
Gerrie Ferris
Minotaur; $24.99; 304 pages

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Mood Swings To Murder
Author: Jane Isenberg
Publisher: Avon Books
PBODecember 2000

ISBN: 0-380-80282-1

Third in this series about an English teacher in the New Jersey college system. Bel Barrett teaches for a community college in Hoboken, a great platform for a variety of stories, because she'll encounter older students, some with families, and some withjobs, both of which can give rise to problems not usually encountered by more traditional, full time, students.

The previous books are "The M Word" and "Death in a Hot Flash."

Author of this series, Jane Isenberg, is a veteran urban college teacher and she writes with authority, wit and a sure sense of her environment. She also understands the processes of female aging. Her protagonist is Bel Barrett who finds it impossible to ignore student problems outside the classroom and who also spends a lot of energy worrying about her two grown children. She is abetted by two women who seem to have more time on their hands to deal with Bel's murder cases than is usual. One is a fiery private investigator which solves one continuing problems for any amateur sleuth, that of access to various agency records and actions. The two provide Bel, who has a pretty full schedule, with assistance and reassurances. With a pregnant daughter in Seattle and a son on the East Coast, both of whom seem to be less than fully settled--in their mother's view, anyway, the two women offer a level of sanity and judicious advice.

This story has an unusual plot line. It concerns the murder of a Frank Sinatra impersonator, one of several who seem to litter the Hoboken landscape. Bel, her friends and other hangers on, including Bel's mother, are swept up in Bel's attempt to figureout who killed Louie Palumbo and why. One of Isenberg's strengths is the clever and logical ways she involves Bel in murder investigations.

In this case, she and lover Sol, out for a romantic stroll literally stumble across the body.Two sub-plots are nicely handled. Bel's relationships with her sometime-live-in son and her now pregnant daughter have no bearing on the main plot but they do add dimension and reality to the characters. All in all, in spite of an abundance of angst and soul-searching in place of action and suspense, this is another worthy outing, an American cozy with a little bit of bite mixed with mystery and eccentricity.

Carl Brookins,

Case of the Greedy Lawyer, Devils Island,Bloody Halls, more at Kindle & Smashwords!