Monday, September 25, 2017


One of my favorite things about the Maggie Hope mysteries are the historical tidbits that feel like M&Ms in the ice cream. Like the fact that Le Figaro, the French newspaper, which takes its name from The Marriage of Figaro, finds its slogan in that same work: Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise. And the fact that Coco Chanel had a Nazi lover. And that the clocks in Paris were made to run on Berlin time. But the ice cream itself is rich, too--by which I mean the stakes of the book are high from the start, with one of the SOE agents captured and on the verge of being tortured. She kills herself to protect what she knows, but the question that drives the book is, Who betrayed her; who is the mole? And though the reader suspects by the middle of the novel, it's like watching a train wreck, as we hope Maggie figures it out in time to save herself and her sister. My quibbles with the book are the way a lot of backstory--including an astonishing number of love interests--gets dropped in, in synopsis; and for me, some of the plot points hang together a bit too neatly. But still, it's a fun, interesting, fast-paced and well-researched read.

Friday, September 22, 2017


The story of a 53-year-old woman excavating her father's traumatizing past--a stint as the Jewish supervisor in charge of an all-black Housekeeping Crew for planes in WWII--by way of interviews with one of the men who served under him. At the end of the book, in a section, "How this book came to be," the author explains that the book is largely autobiographical; this story is her father's story. The historical sections, which are compelling, reflect a world that is inhumane and brutal in its racism; but Rachel's story, about how she can't commit to David who loves her, how she pushes people away because she never learned what love is, how she refuses a therapist's help, how she cruelly refuses to empathize with an abused horse, felt flat and too pat to me. I know I was supposed to feel for Rachel, with her cold and embittered father, her worn-out and disaffected mother, her sister who can only overeat and grab belongings to fill the hole of lovelessness inside her. But I found myself impatient with Rachel; she seems to have insights throughout and yet purposefully remains stuck in her behavior, and so her sudden revelation and change at the end seemed, to me, unearned. I did like much of the writing; one of my favorite lines: "[Nature] can take a heart that has lived like an empty barrel, echoing angrily with noise from the past, and fill it with hope. Love, even."

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


As other reviewers have noted, this book holds at least three interrelated, mirroring stories: that of John Snare, who believed he had purchased a lost Valazquez when everyone else insisted it was a Van Dyck and who lost his family and his fortune defending it; Valazquez himself, who painted himself into the masterpiece *Las Meninas*, where there is represented both a mirror and a canvas; and Cumming (the author) who is retracing/mirroring John Snare's path, partly as an historian and art critic and partly, she admits, as a response to the death of her father (a painter) and her overwhelming sense of loss. At times I felt the book got a little hot and breathless over what is, at bottom, a relatively uncomplicated story; but I enjoyed it and learned a lot about painters and Valazquez, and I greatly admire the amount of research she did.