Review of “The Orphan Mother” by Robert Hicks

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Having not read The Widow of the South, I was concerned that I may have difficulty following  along with The Orphan MotherThankfully, it is easily read as a stand-alone novel and I’m now inspired to read The Widow of the South. 

Mariah Reddick is the former slave to Carrie McGavock. Since becoming a free woman, she has established herself as a competent and respected midwife to the women of Franklin, Tennessee. Her grown son, Theopolis, is a cobbler with political aspirations.

Theopolis had told her it gave him comfort to think that he, a Negro, might soon be sitting in the legislature with his feet up on the rail and voting according to his own instincts and philosophies.” 

Though the Civil War is over, racial prejudices violent crimes against former slaves and free black men and women, especially those who rocked the political boat, are widely and publicly tolerated, condoned, and even encouraged by the men to whom they become a threat. When Theopolis tells Mariah he is going to give a speech in the town square, Mariah is fearful that Theopolis will fall victim to these men as a result of his courage and bravery. Her worst fears are realized as Theopolis is murdered before he has the opportunity to address the crowd. In the mayhem and chaos, a white grocer is also killed.

The Army is sending troops to keep the peace and investigate the events of the day. But as Mariah comes to the realization that they are being sent primarily to investigate the death of the grocer, she become singularly focused on finding her son’s killer/s on her own.

“”I will find out. I ain’t gone stop’. Mariah had not known this until she said it. But now she knew she would go on just as she formed the words.”

Along the way, Mariah becomes close with a man named George Tole. ‘Tole’ is new in town and has a difficult and troubled past. Tole is broken man; he’s seen and done more than he can cope with in the war and has turned to the bottle for consolation. He is now doing his best to become a better man. As the two grow closer, we begin to understand them on a deeper level.

Robert Hicks has written a book that beautifully illustrates the strength a mother is able to summon in the name of avenging her child’s murder. Mariah is a force. She does not have time to indulge in her grief. She’s a woman on a mission.

There were times in this book when I, expectedly, felt saddened, angry, and ashamed at the culture of racial prejudice and violence. However, I found the overall messages of strength, dignity, and perseverance to be encouraging.

At its heart, this is a book about love, loss, and coming to terms with the truth. I was especially touched by the epilogue. I think Theopolis would have been very proud of his mother.

4.5/5 stars

Many thanks to Grand Central Publishing for proving a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison For a Murder He Didn’t Commit by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved. – Benjamin Franklin, letter to Benjamin Vaughn dated March 14, 1785

 

On the evening of October 30, 1975, Martha Moxley, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl residing in the prestigious Belle Haven enclave of the very affluent town of Greenwich Connecticut, was brutally murdered so close to her own home her mother believes she may have heard her screams.

The following morning, her friend finds her body bludgeoned and stabbed. The weapon is a golf club which has been wielded with such force it has broken in three. Her pants and underwear have been pulled down around her ankles, indicating a sexual assault, though in the days to come we will learn that her hymen remains intact and there is no evidence of semen found on or near her body.

There are suspects are aplenty. The neighbors, the neighbor’s tutor, the ill-tempered boyfriend, the rapist gardner, the weirdo next door. Some witnesses even report seeing large, hulking figures slinking about in the night, inspiring such fear that they hid until the coast was clear and then ran to the safety of their homes. Residents are sure the forensic evidence will narrow the search and a stand-out suspect will come to forefront. Police will swiftly match the evidence with the suspect, corroborate eyewitness testimony, and elicit a confession. Sadly, that does not happen. Alibis will be corroborated. Polygraph and sodium pentathol tests will be passed and failed. There will be a devastating loss of physical evidence and other catastrophic investigative failures. The case will become cold.

But even as the case turns and stays cold, one family will remain under a cloud of suspicion. The Skakels, the Belle Haven neighbors of the Moxley family, will provide police, the media, and the general public with two suspects. Initially, however, it is Michael’s older brother, Tommy, who is considered the more likely perpetrator. In fact, it will be years before Michael is considered a suspect. I won’t reveal all of the information on the various suspects or all of the contradictory evidence but it’s my belief that there were other suspects who deserved at least the same amount of attention given to the Skakel boys. It seems some were only given a cursory glance while some were not given any attention at all. It was no secret that the Skakels were a wealthy and powerful family. But rather than making them off-limits and impenetrable as some have suggested, it seemed to have made them more of a target to those who considered them suspects.

In 1991, the Greenwich PD announced they would be reinvestigating the case. What ensued  between this announcement, Michael’s arrest and conviction, and his being granted habeas corpus relief  in 2013, was a media and judicial three-ring circus the details of which you must read to believe. Due at least in part to the inadequate representation Michael received, a whole laundry list of factors, including the disregard of the established time of death and solid alibi Michael had for that time, and credibility of the only witnesses testifying against Michael were ignored, resulting in Michael’s conviction.

This book isn’t simply the story of the crime and trial, however. It’s also the story of  Michael and the Skakel family. Some of the details may surprise you. That’s all I’ll say about that.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has been interested in the Martha Moxley case. It is also an important illustration for us all that miscarriages of justice can and do occur when the need for results, power, fame, and money supersede the need for justice.

Though I was left with a few unanswered questions, I felt Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison For a Murder He Didn’t Commit provides a compelling case in support of Michael Skakel’s innocence. Of course, the author is Michael Skakel’s cousin. (Perhaps we wouldn’t be so familiar with this case if it were otherwise.) But even a biased presentation of facts (and I’m certainly not saying there is one here) could not change things such as time of death, lost physical evidence, and the concealment of exculpatory evidence.

I feel that I should mention that I have not read any other books regarding this case, fictionalized or otherwise, including those by Dominick Dunne and disgraced former L.A.P.D. detective Mark Fuhram. Therefore, I have no basis to compare the arguments for or against any suspects or information in previously published books.

We must always remember that despite gut feelings, rumors, and personal disdain and prejudice, the American criminal justice system is based on one’s innocence until guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution in a court of law – not with the media, tabloid or otherwise. And certainly not with the rumor mill, those with a personal ax to grind, or those out to make a quick buck on someone else’s misfortune.

Michael is currently awaiting a decision as to whether or not he will be re-tried for the murder of Martha Moxley.

4.75/5 stars

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

May Book Club “Madamoiselle Chanel” and Circo

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A couple of weeks ago, (I am waaay behind on posting), the NYC Ladies Fine Dining and Fiction Book Club got together at Circo to discuss Mademoiselle Chanel, which was selected for the group by one of our regular members. It was a book I’d been excited about reading for a long time so I was quite happy with the choice.

I really enjoyed the book and it’s quite evident that the author did an amazing amount of research. I though I knew quite a bit about Gabrielle Chanel but I was wrong. (Who else thought the trademark interlocking Cs stood for Coco Chanel? Wrong!!)

She led an amazing life having been orphaned at an early age and rising through the fashion ranks to be what many consider the most influential designer in the history of fashion. Though we take many of designs for granted as classics, she was the fashion innovator of her time. Her styles reflected the changing times in Europe, much of which necessitated by WWII and the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Though, in many ways, I couldn’t really relate to her, I appreciated the sacrifices she made for her career and the difficulties she faced as a female entrepreneur, often forced to rely on men for money and opportunity, frequently not in complete control of her own destiny. Though she seemed to be a source of great fascination and enchantment to many men throughout her life, her relationships were often full of controversy and scandal, not the least of which was her romantic liaison with a Nazi officer.

I was also surprised to learn of the  history of Chanel No. 5. While the story if its origins and development were fascinating, the story of her relationship with the Wertheimer family, with whom she partnered to finance, market, and produce the fragrance, appalled me. Not only did she not want honor the contract she entered into with them, she tried to regain all of their interest in the company during the occupation under Hitler’s law that Jews could not own property of business enterprises.

Long-time book club member, Jane, found the story of the creation of the LBD to be fascinating. She also found the history of Chanel No. 5 to be intriguing. She loved Chanel’s idea that the woman should wear the dress as opposed to the standard at the time which was quite the opposite. Though Jane agrees with many of us that Chanel may not have been a very likable woman, she feels that Americans seems to be obsessed with the notion that creative geniuses also be nice people which she feels is often not possible.

As for the restaurant, I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed. One meal had to be sent back (not mine) and I think the consensus was that the food ranged from just okay to pretty good and the service was somewhat lacking. We were a group of twelve and while I can certainly appreciate that managing a group of that size may present some challenges, I don’t think providing water for the table in a timely manner should be one of them. And then there was the fire alarm which went off not once, not twice but THRICE during our meal!

As for my own meal, it was a mixed bag. I shared the Salsiccia pizza with a friend as an appetizer and it was excellent. For my entree, I ordered the Mafaldine Con Sugo D’Anatra, which is pasta with a duck and mushroom ragu. I didn’t love it but I think that had to do more with my own palate than the preparation. I’ve only been eating duck for a short time and had only ordered duck breast in the past. The sauce was more brown vs. the red sauce I was expecting. The homemade pasta itself was very good, however, and perfectly cooked.

Long-time (probably charter is more accurate) book club member Nadine felt that overall, the food was just okay; the risotto being a bit too al dente, the ravioli a tad bland, and the veal a bit too salty.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The decor provides a nice change from the typical decor you see in different versions of the same aesthetic throughout the city’s better restaurants. It’s colorful, whimsical, and cheery. The sommelier was very helpful and we were able to choose a red which suited everyone’s taste at a fair price point. And, as always, the company was fabulous and the discussions lively.

I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from dining at Circo, and I’m glad I was able to get there as it had been on my list for a long time. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to make a return visit (With rare exceptions I try not to repeat. There are too many great places I’ve yet to get to.) but neither would I be horrified at the prospect of going back if I had a reason to.

After dinner, a few of us went out for drinks at Flute Bar which was a great place to enjoy an after dinner drink. It was not overly crowded, the DJ played great music at a decibel level that allowed for conversation when seated, the service was great, and all at reasonable prices. I would definitely return.

Ratings are my own.

The book 4/5 stars

The restaurant 3/5 stars

The bar 5/5

 

 

Review of “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

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Britt-Marie was an intensely unlikable woman in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s SorryPerhaps that’s because she was so unhappy herself. I’m so glad I was able to get to know her better in Britt-Marie Was HereIt should be mentioned that, although I highly recommend reading My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and you will be even more impressed by Britt-Marie in this book if you do, you won’t have any trouble at all reading this as a stand-alone.

Sixty-three year old Britt-Marie has finally left her philandering husband and is trying to move on with her life. But there are more than a few obstacles in her way. To begin with, it’s more than a little difficult for a woman her age, who has not been gainfully employed in forty-some years to find a job in the middle of a financial crisis. But Britt-Marie is very resourceful. And by this, I mean that she pesters the poor young woman at the unemployment office, wearing her down until she finds her a position in the somewhat disadvantaged town of Borg. Thus begins Britt-Marie’s journey toward independence, friendships, and self-actualization(!). No small accomplishments for this very quirky, somewhat neurotic, maker-of-lists, and keeper of order who loathes soccer, has never had children of her own, and has somehow become the children’s soccer coach in Borg.

This is one of those books that is not terribly long, and is written very simply, but packs a huge punch in terms of conveying an astounding amount of emotional ranges and the understanding of human relationships.(And, at times, those with dogs and rats.) From desperation and sadness to hopefulness and redemption, it’s impossible not to laugh and cry, at times simultaneously. It is a beautiful thing, how Britt-Marie became such a vital part of the community. And even more so how the community became such a vital part of her.

Every character is so carefully revealed and so richly developed it would be quite easy to convince me I actually knew them. There are too many to mention but individually but I will say that I wouldn’t mind having a beer with Bank and Somebody. But as much as each character stands out individually, it’s the collective character of the town that is most unique and endearing.They are mostly good people, doing the best they can. And while they may not agree on every little thing, when the you-know-what hits the fan, they stand together. Many of us have lived in Borg, if not geographically, then metaphorically, at one time or another. And if not, then we should wish that we had.

 

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Atria Books via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of “The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and Californian” by David Dyer

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The Midnight Watch provides us with a beautifully written, compelling, and moving account of the failure of the Californian, a fellow White Star Line ship, to respond to the distress signals of the Titanic in those fateful early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Eight individual white rockets indicating distress were fired from the deck of Titanic. Second Officer Herbert Stone, of the Californian, reported this to Captain Stanley Lord and Lord chose to stay in bed, doing absolutely nothing about it! To make matters worse, he lied about and continued to deny any responsibility for his lack of action for his entire life.

David Dyer has certainly done the research here in terms of the gathering of historical information. But this book is so much more than that. He gives us the hardworking, hard-drinking, tenacious Boston reporter Steadman. Steadman is determined to expose the truth, give voice to the victims, and uncover why the Californian, the only real hope at minimizing or even preventing loss of life, failed to give aid for hours while only a few miles away. Steadman is a complex, well-developed character. Though not perfect, he gave me someone to root for, someone willing to risk his job and his skin in the name of justice. (If only Herbert Stone had been that strong…) The author does a fabulous job in bringing the crew members of Californian to life and weaving the historical facts in seamlessly with portions of the story that are partially or completely fictionalized. The Story of the Sage family, mother, father, and nine children, all of whom perished in the Titanic, brought me to tears and reminded me of those heart-wrenching scenes of the 1997 film Titanic.

I hadn’t been aware of this failure of epic proportions and I’m amazed at how little attention history has given to this aspect of the history of the Titanic tragedy. I was both saddened and infuriated with the characters and events responsible in this book. I highly recommend this book to anyone that loves great historical fiction but it is a must-read for those of us who, like the author, have been Titanic obsessed since, like, forever.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.