Book Review: A Nun in the Closet

I picked up this little mystery novel because having lived my entire life with nuns….growing up running around the Dominican convent in Rockville Centre, hiding behind the starched white habits, and cuddled on the many Dominican laps, spoiled with Russells Stovers chocolates and holy cards (both of which, mysteriously, the nuns in my aunt’s convent always seemed to have at hand)….I have to say, I love nuns.

But more importantly for this writer, I love to read. And I love mystery stories, and A Nun in the Closet has all the right ingredients.  What a fun, rollicking good read. If you’re looking for a breezy summer beach or poolside read, this book is it.

A Nun in the Closet follows two cloistered sisters from the convent of St. Tabitha’s in Pennsylvania. There are only 17 sisters in the entire United States branch of the order, living in cloistered, holy solitude. They live off the land; Sister Hyacinthe, one of the nuns in the story, is the cloister’s herbalist, whipping up such delicacies as slippery elm bark gruel for breakfast and tasty peppermint tea as a pick me up. The nuns also bake bread and sell it via a local bakery and deli.

Fortune smiles upon the good sisters when they receive a mysterious letter from a a New York-based attorney giving them the amazing news that a man in upstate New York, a Mr. Moretti, has died and left his entire 100+ acre estate to the order.  The Mother Superior charges feisty Sister John and Sister Hyacinthe with the task of driving to the property and taking inventory so that the sisters can decide what to do with it.

Borrowing their friend’s bakery van (since the nuns do not own a car) and loading it with freshly baked bread, homemade cheese and bedrolls, the nuns arrive at a sprawling, empty Gothic Victorian mansion to find an overgrown garden, a dusty house with no running water, but a mysterious kitchen pantry filled with over 50 jars of sugar. The nuns quickly encounter another mystery; a man hiding in their upstairs closet. He whispers, “Sanctuary!” before passing out from blood loss; he’s been shot several times. Fortunately, all of the bullets passed out through the exit holes, so Sister Hyacinthe’s poultices and the nuns’ strong dandelion wine can do their magic and restore the man.

The sisters soon encounter a group of friendly ex-hippies encamped on their property who introduce them to the plight of migrant workers locally.  Other strange characters appear, including a man who has a fascination with everyone’s trash.

If this all sounds crazy, believe me, it is.  Sister John and Sister Hyacinthe are great detectives for several reasons. First, nothing phases them. When ghosts appear one night, Sister John just starts quoting scripture at them to banish them while quietly continued her sewing. Later on in the book, when a bad guy threatens her with a gun, her perfect faith saves her. And while we the readers know that the mysterious suitcase with half a million dollars in it found suspended in the haunted house’s well has to be connected  with the pantry packed with jars of sugar – actually cocaine, as the ex-hippies have to explain to the nuns – the sisters remain blissfully ignorant.

Finding out who keeps breaking into their new home, figuring out what to do with all that cocaine left lying around, the effort to convert the man hiding in their closet to Christ (he happens to be a Mafia hit man, but that doesn’t deter these feisty nuns from trying to get him to leave his evil ways), and helping the local migrant workers out of poverty, all the while solving the mystery of why Mr. Moretti, a man the sisters have never heard of before, left his entire fortune to their order is all seamlessly interwoven into a fun plot that never veers into sacrilege or irreverence. On the contrary, although the sisters are fun and funny, their faith is what saves them at the end of the day.

I won’t give away the ending to the mystery, but let’s just say the good guys come out ahead, and when two branches of the Mafia show up, they’re no match for two nuns brandishing rosaries, quoting psalms, and calmly demanding they wipe their feet on the front door mat.

A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman is my first experience with Ms. Gilman’s writing. I look forward to finding more of her books; I hope she wrote more stories about Sister John and the nuns of St. Tabitha.  They’d make fantastic detectives and would give Brother Cafael a run for his money!

Book Review: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by P.D. James offers an engrossing read, with excellently drawn characters, an intriguing isolated island, and a difficult to solve murder. Although I think James copped out with the solution to the crime (more on that later – spoiler warning!), her characters evolve and we are kept turning the pages to find out “who dun it.” You can’t ask for more than that with a mystery novel.

The Lighthouse is the latest in her Adam Dalgliesh series.  We’re back with AD, as he’s called, Inspector Kate Miskin and Benton-Smith, another man on the force.  Benton-Smith takes the place of Piers, who is now moved to a different unit; good for Kate, because she’s finally sleeping with him, and the budding romance takes her one step further into character development. It’s believable plot twist and one that I cheered, because I have always liked James’ character and want her to be happy. I think that’s the sign of a well drawn character. When we want the evil doer to get his comeuppance, or when we want one of the characters to achieve their heart’s desire, and we are rooting for them, they’ve become so real to us that they are like our friends, family and acquaintances. We want them to be happy and they are just words on paper, but no matter; they are real to us.

This mystery focuses on a writer named Nathan Oliver. He sounds like a cold, cruel megalomaniac. He’s brilliant but cannot feel; he treats people like things. His only child, a daughter, is desperate to escape her role as Daddy’s personal secretary. She has an affair with his personal editorial assistant, and they’re both prime suspects when Oliver turns up murdered. He wasn’t happy to find the pair entwined in a naked embrace in a hidden cover on the beach. Although they tell him they’re engaged to be married, Daddy is most certainly Not Happy, but only because he’s losing two of his best workers and won’t be able to control them anymore.  As a reader, I ended up loathing Nathan Oliver. Having no pity for the murder victim didn’t make me want them to not to solve the murder, but you can’t really like this guy. He has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, so when he turns up dead, you’re just sort of shrugging like, “Okay, it finally happened.” Too many people want him gone from their lives.

The action takes place on a fictional island called Combe, and I think Combe turned into a character, too. It’s supposed to be a retreat for the super wealthy or super famous. They can go to the island for R & R without the paparazzi or body guards. At the time the murder takes place, the guests on the island include Oliver, his daughter and his personal assistant; two scientists who run an animal testing facility that’s always under threat from extremists; a permanent resident of the island, an elderly lady and her servant; an ex-Anglican priest turn alcoholic turned assistant to the island’s attorney. There’s a fellow who returned with his mother, an island residents, and stayed on after her death. There’s a disgraced physician and his saucy nurse-wife. There’s a gay tough guy named Jago who runs the boat to and from the mainland; Millie, a streetwise girl who latched onto Jago and who he brought to the island as a servant; and of course, the cook, housekeeper, and other staff.

The island itself is remote. It sounds from the author’s descriptions like you’d want to just stay in one of the cottages and star gaze for hours on end. It’s idyllic. I’d like to live there permanently if you could guarantee internet access.

When Oliver turns up hanging from the lighthouse by an oddly fashioned noose, it’s at first thought to be suicide. Later, the detectives realize that the noose isn’t the cause of death; he was strangled first and the body staged to look like a hanging.

The plot takes the predictable mystery novel turns, with the detectives analyzing motives, questioning suspects and all of that.  Here’s where I think PD James, for all her greatness, took a turn for the worse. During the course of the novel, one of the suspects falls ill with SARS, a severe respiratory disease. Dalgliesh, the lead detective, also contracts the disease. So he’s up in the infirmary deathly ill while Kate has to take over the investigation. Now all of this would be fine and interesting, except  that at the ninth hour, like the old deus ex machina from the Greek dramas, Dalgliesh wakes up from his high fever, solves the mystery, and communicates it to Kate.  It felt contrived, and it felt like an author cop out.  Why bother taking Dalgliesh out of the picture, show us Kate’s rising confidence in her detective abilities, and then suddenly take the solution out of her hands?  It didn’t make sense and that’s what I meant by the ending wasn’t great. The murderer and the death of an innocent man on the island, a second and more sympathetic character, also didn’t feel right. I didn’t find many clues at all pointing to the eventual revelation of the murderer, and as I thought about the book this morning, the second murdered man also didn’t make much sense. These also felt contrived, as if James realized, “Oliver wasn’t very sympathetic; but this man is, so I’ll have him killed too.”

All in all, The Lighthouse was an engrossing read. I looked forward to my time spent each evening reading the novel, and eagerly look forward to my next dive into PD James’ world of British detective Adam Dalgliesh.

Book Review: Fox Tracks by Rita Mae Brown

Rita Mae Brown clearly loves horses, fox hunting, dogs, cats and animals of all kinds. And while sometimes I think her editor is asleep at the desk, overall Fox Tracks is an enjoyable, fun and entertaining read.

Fox Tracks is another of her Sister Jane novels. Sister isn’t a nun; it’s a nickname for Jane Arnold, a fox hunt Master, horsewoman, and Virginian who gets drawn into mysteries a lot. I think of Sister Jane like a fit, trim and equestrian version of Jessica Fletcher from the old Murder, She Wrote series.  Like Jessica Fletcher, people have the unfortunate experience of dying near Sister Jane, although at least not always in her own home town. In this book, she travels with a few friends and her boyfriend, Gray Loliard, to New York City for the annual hunt ball. She pops around the corner from the Pierre hotel to a tobacco stand to buy cigarettes for Gray, and the Cuban clerk who waits on her is murdered just a few moments after she leaves the store. Similar murders are reported in the national news as occurring in Boston and other locations, and a body is found during a winter hunt near Sister’s farm.  It’s all connected, mixed up with Custis Hall, the imaginary girl’s school in the novels, and Coptic Egyptians. If that seems far fetched, it is, but Brown is forgiven; her books are far too entertaining and sweet to be held to tasks for plot problems.

As with all of Rita Mae Brown’s books, her writing shines when she’s writing about fox hunting, horseback riding, or animals in general. Her dialogue among the critters in the book is priceless. I read a scene to my husband where Golliwog, the calico cat, lures the two family dogs outside so she can pop them on the nose when they return through the outdoor pet door. We were both laughing by the time the scene was over simply because it was just so, so true. We could imagine our cats figuring out a plot like that to get the dog. That’s what I mean by Brown’s love of animals. She just “gets” them and when she’s writing about them or from their perspective, she’s at her best.

The book felt rushed, however, as if the editors rushed it to print. The opening chapters were poorly written. Rita Mae Brown also has a, weird use, of commas.  Half the time a simple swap of words or fixing an adjectival phrase or two would have made the sentence flow smoothly. Another editorial issue is that twice, proper nouns were made into common nouns. Someone needs to give national editors a list of horse breeds. I can’t tell you how many want to make Quarter Horse lower case, or Thoroughbred lower case.  And the words Bag Balm, folks, are a proper noun. It’s brand of salve used on animals and on people and it’s not a common noun.  Okay, so I’m a stickler for these things. I can’t help it.

Anyway….if you can overlook the bumpy prose and wait until the first fox hunting scene, you’ll be richly rewarded. Brown’s prose makes me feel like I’m riding along with the hunt. If the murder mystery isn’t that engaging, that’s fine. I stick around just long enough to find out what happens to the foxes, horses and hounds in Rita Mae Brown’s books.

They’re the true stars of her novels, anyway!

Disclaimer: I borrowed a copy of this book from the library. I was not paid in any way to write this review. It is completely neutral and unbiased.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” Made ME Want to Flee

It’s rare that I don’t even finish a book, but Barbara Kingsolver’s lates tnovel, Flight Risk, made me feel so depleted of energy it was time to put it down and return it to the library. I was a flight risk from its pages, that’s for sure. And that’s a shame, because Kingsolver’s prose is worth study. She has a gift for crafting fine sentences; I admire fine craftsmanship, especially when it’s within my own profession.  But beautiful prose cannot mask a thinly disguised political agenda, cliched characters and dreadful dialogue that make the pages seem as if they’re dragging on forever.

The book follows Dellarobia, a house wife in a depressed Appalachian community who strikes out one day to have an affair with the telephone repairman. She’s agreed to an assignation near an old shed on the family’s sheep farm but as she walks to meet her prospective lover, she sees what she believes is a vision of fire. It turns out not to be fire but monarch butterflies – millions of them. Instead of migrating to Mexico, the butterflies have decided to congregate on the hillside of the family farm.

I don’t much like Dellarobia. I don’t have sympathy for her, and she just confuses me as a character. We learn that she has an overbearing, nasty mother in law who hen pecks her son and bosses them all around. When Del leaves her children with her mother in law, Mom in Law from hell doesn’t even bother changing the baby’s diaper. I get the impression that nobody in the family cares much about changing diapers. All around is squalor.  Dirty house, sticky kids, Del not even having new shoes.

Okay, I get it. The family is poor. But some poor people are not dirty. The opposite, in fact. They take great pains to care for what they have. Del is a full time mother, but you’d be hard pressed to find her doing anything resembling housework.  She whines, complains, and daydreams about sleeping with the phone repairman. She gets stupid text messages from her best friend. She tries to use her brain in an evening Bible study course but gets shamed out of it by the congregation.

The family is facing logging their timber, which – gasp, horror – is seen as bad! Now let me stop here and say that I live on a timber farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Kingsolver’s characters live in Tennessee, I’m in Virginia, but I’m very familiar with logging now that I’ve moved into the area.  Yet, it’s distressing to see forest clear cut. I don’t like it, but it’s necessary. The pines grown for the timber industry are fast growing trees that take 10-20 years to reach marketable size. Cutting them down is necessary.

Enter the butterflies. They save the day, literally, because now that they are on the farm, logging is halted. People start showing up to see them. A black scientist from New Mexico arrives who studies butterflies. And…

Well, it is here that I put the book down, resigned to the fact that this wasn’t getting any better. There’s such an underlying condescension that seeps through the finely crafted prose that I just couldn’t read any more. Del’s husband, Cub, is slack-jawed with amazement (cue Country Yokel music) that the man seated with them at table went to college. He’s never met a college man before! Oh please, give me a break. Maybe I’m spoiled because I live in a rural community that boasts two fine universities, but the thought that a farmer is “amazed” by a college man in this day and age just boggles the mind.

Del is unlikeable, Cub is a doormat, her mother in law is a harridan, and the only likable character so far is Bobby, the preacher, and the professor eating tuna casserole at her diner table. I like her whining children better than I like her. Heck, I like the family’s sheep dogs better than I like her.

Global warming may be happening, but I’m not ready to cry big crocodile tears over it. Throughout the centuries, the earth has warmed and cooled. The famine of 1788 and 1789 prompted the French revolution; the weather pattern we are in today is, according to meteorologist, very similar to one in the 1950s. I remember the 1970s and magazine covers predicting the next great Ice Age. Now everyone thinks the earth is warming so fast that parrots will roost in Antarctica. I give up. I don’t need a novelist to beat the drum for global warming. We have Al Gore and his ilk for that.

So I didn’t finish this book, which I suppose makes my review invalid in some eyes. But I just couldn’t take the characters anymore. I want to feel for people, and Dellarobia is the least likable heroine I’ve encountered in a long time.  Unless you’re a die-hard Kingsolver fan, I’d skip this one.

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Disclaimer: This is an unpaid review. I read a library copy of the book. I did not finish the book.

 

Book Review: Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz

Today’s book review is actually a rewrite of the one I composed yesterday. Unfortunately, that post seemed to trigger some sort of automated alert on another blogging platform, and my blog was suspended. I keep picturing the robot from Lost In Space shouting, “Warning! Warning, Will Robinson!” and waving his arms about madly as the automated robot on the other blogging platform seemed to think that my post was a nefarious scheme to undermine Western society or something. Or worse, I said that God is good and Satan is bad. Yes, that’s the turn my book review took, and I’m going to do my best to recapitulate the highlights from that post here, now, in this of what I hope to be the first of many posts on our new blogging home.

Deeply Odd by Dean Koontz is the type of book that elicits huge variances among reviewers. Some love it, some hate. I’m on the “I liked it a lot” but didn’t love it category. I have never really loved the Deeply Odd series of books the way I truly love Koontz’s book From the Corner of His Eye. But Koontz is one of the few sci fi and horror writers today who has a deeply Christian, and in Koontz’s case, Roman Catholic worldview undergirding his stories. It is perhaps for this reason that I overlook some of the flaws in his Odd Thomas series and instead cheer the universal truths espoused in his books.

(Warning! Spoiler Alert!)

Deeply Odd finds the character of Odd Thomas, the fry cook from Pico Mundo who sees the ghosts of the unquiet dead, with Annamaria and Thomas, the eerie never aging child rescued in the last book, in a cottage somewhere.  The mysterious tinkerbell he wears around his neck chimes, summoning him to the rescue of three children he sees in a vision.  Along the way, he finds himself in a parallel universe he dubs Elsewhere, not exactly hell but definitely not earth, either. He eventually discovers that the horrific vision of children being killed is part of a larger vision of evil. A Satanic cult, led by a man he dubs the Rhinestone Cowboy, is kidnapping children and plans to sacrifice them to their master. Odd Thomas, aided by a mysterious and kookie old lady named Edie Fischer, the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, and a ghost dog named Boo must rescue the children, escape from an angry released demon, and avoid a pack of amoral Satanist.

Sounds like a crazy plot? It is.

All of the Odd Thomas books contain an element of the surreal. Heaven and hell are real places in Koontz’s books, and good and evil aren’t gray, murky, relativistic concepts. Instead, they are clearly defined concepts. Priests and nuns are the good guys (except when taken over by aliens, in which case you forgive them, because the aliens are running the show.) Dogs are always good. Cats get names like Terrible Chester and pee on shoes. (Okay, they do that in real life, too.) But throughout the books, there’s a golden thread of optimism and faith in human nature that makes Koontz’s books something beyond a mere horror novel. Yes, people die – sometimes in gruesome ways. Ask the guy in Deeply Odd who got his soul sucked out of his body by a six-eyed demon that escapes from Elsewhere. Yet like the old movies in which only the Nazis got killed in gruesome ways and the good guys died bloodless deaths, the man whose soul is eaten by the demon is a satanist, a cult member who is looking forward to murdering children.  That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to good people; they do, especially in Koontz’s other books. Serafina in From the Corner of His Eye is raped as a young teenager by her physical therapist; children flee evil forces; bad things do happen. But in Koontz’s world, a loving God cares about the fall of the sparrow and the well being of a child and sends furry Golden Retrievers to shower children with love and affections. Is it any wonder I’m a fan of his books?

Deeply Odd does suffer from several literary flaws, but so do all the Odd Thomas books. Several readers who shared reviews of the book on Amazon panned the book for his “conservative speeches” but I don’t have an issue with conservative OR liberal speeches if the character in a book is clearly of that mindset. I do have an issue with Odd Thomas’ monologues in which he spins metaphor after metaphor. It’s a character trait that almost made me abandon the series at the start, and it hasn’t endeared itself to me or to many of the readers who disliked the book.

This book is indeed darker in tone than others in the series. Odd is a little down, but who wouldn’t be? He’s had to flee the job he loves, his girlfriend is dead, and he keeps getting plunged into metaphysical mysteries for which his love of cooking fluffy pancakes at the diner hasn’t prepared him.  All he yearns for is to return to his hometown and his simple life as a fry cook at the diner, but universal forces keep pushing him to confront the tangible manifestation of evil in today’s world. And that’s probably why I, among Koontz’s millions of fans worldwide, keep returning to this series.

The author said originally that there would be only six books in the series, but he has indeed left a cliff hanger and a big opening for a seventh book. I hope he does write it. I hope the series ends with Odd Thomas being happy. When you’re saddled with the first name of Odd, and baggage as big as a tractor trailer truck like his main character, readers tend to root for his eventual happiness.

Disclaimer: This is an unbiased review. I obtained a copy of the book Deeply Odd from the library.