Where has the time gone?

Just like one’s New Year Resolutions I intended to write up my review immediately after a book or story was read, only to end up six or seven books later and no review.  My reading material is electronic, as there book shops are not near and the post is often slow.  Admittedly the physical book and its cover stimulates the brain to remember the story,  but alas this isn’t always the case with e-books.  The first few pages have to be reread before the story comes hurtling back.

After a busy day there are times when I like to read a simple, straight forward book at bedtime.  Cozy mysteries fall into this category, like ‘Murder on the SS Rosy by Lee Strauss’ or books by Rosie Hunt, her Lady Felicity quick mystery books.  Admittedly sometimes the endings are easy to guess, but the reading has helped to quieten the brain, so sleep is nigh. Object achieved.

Sometimes though I embark on stories based on fact or history.  These can keep me reading way past the allotted sleep time, such as ‘The Jade Dragon’ by Garett Hutson and ‘The clockmaker’s secret’ by Jack Benton.  

The Jade Dragon is an engaging murder mystery taking place in old Shanghai in the 1935’s when it is at peace from the Japanese, although tremors are rumbling below the surface. Doug Bainbridge is a recruit for the American Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) already conversant in Mandarin and Cantonese. He is tasked with getting to know the area and in learning the local Chinese dialects.

The clockmaker’s secret is a gripping mystery that unfolds at the very end. The story describes Slim, a recovering alcoholic’s futile attempts of resistance whilst trying to piece together the puzzle. Set in the bleak Bodmin moor, in a small village, where everybody knows everyone’s secrets, he digs into their pasts to discover the answers.

One nice thing about starting a book is you don’t know the end, unless you are one of those people who have to read the last chapter.  Some books are deceptive as although the story appears uncomplicated it leaves you thinking.  Stories like ‘Felicia’s journey’ by William Trevor, ‘They said I couldn’t do it’ based on the black lawyer John Mercer Langston by Robyn R Pearce, ‘The Soul of a shoemaker’ by Susan Cork, ‘Shadow of the Taj’ by Lara Bernhardt and ‘Among Kings’ by Joey O’Connor.

Laura T Frey, a Canadian author and avid reader, read William Trevor’s book ‘Felicia’s Journey and saw the film. Her blog compared the two and queried the differences.  I agree with her findings and endorse her request to read the book. It has so much more to offer. 

Ailish Sinclair writes stories based on some historical event such as her book ‘Fireflies and Chocolate’, which was inspired by the kidnapped children and young people of Aberdeen. She stated in her blog that she  “wanted to bring those people from the past to life, to make them human and relatable. But, wouldn’t it be too depressing to open the door to those particular historical events?”

Recently I offered to read a draft of a story that was based on facts.  Apart from the usual grammatical and typing errors, I was asked to comment on how the story flowed, was there enough conflict between characters, did the characters feel real and so forth.  In addition because of the factual base and my ignorance of these details, I also started researching and checking their validity.  It emphasized the amount of research authors writing stories based on facts have to do to present a valid and believable story.  

Wicked Bleu

This is the second book of E. Denise Billups in the series about Simone Doucet, a successful travel writer.

The first ‘Tainted Harvest’ introduced Delphine, an ancestral ghost who appeared to haunt Simone.  In reality Delphine showed Simone her past and persuaded her to write and publish her story.  She opened Simone’s eyes to the afterlife and revealed she had a gift of second sight and could help other ancestral souls.

Some months after the encounter with Delphine, Simone is living in New York and is being troubled with noises, scents, flashes of vivid blue colour and blurry spectral images, prompting her to take her three flat mates to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The authors description these paranormal events engages the readers full attention. A short lull in the reading follows and then the intrigue starts and develops to the point that you dare not put the book down. 

Mardi Gras is a vibrant time to visit New Orleans.  Outrageously costumed merrymakers with top hats decorated in purple, green and gold representing justice, faith and power, happily swarm the streets singing and dancing to the playing of brass bands. New Orleans has always been a place of mystery – a place of lively music, good food, with roots in Creole and French influences.

The vibrant red sweet fruity Hurricane drink seems innocuous but contains two types of rum and has a liberating and alcoholic effect.  This signature drink was invented during World War II at Pat O’Brien’s when distilleries were repurposed making whiskey scarce. One case of whiskey required the bar to buy 50 cases of rum.   A glass, shaped like a hurricane lamp was the perfect vessel and the Hurricane drink  was born.

The infamous Storyville area was a red light area of 38 blocks where prostitution was tolerated and not illegal. Blue books, known as the “guidebooks to sin,” were booklets that advertised the activity of Storyville and served as a directory for the prostitutes and “madames” of the district, many of whom were categorised by race. “W” for white, “C” for coloured, and “Oct.” for octoroon, meaning one-eighth Black. Many light-skinned, mixed race, and/or Creole women worked at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, a luxurious parlour occupied by rich, white men.  Many famous jazz players got their start in these brothels including Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, Buddy Bolden. Even a young Louis Armstrong made money by bringing coal to the brothels within the district. 

Piece by piece little fragments are revealed to Simone as she and and her flat mates stroll through the famed French quarter, or Vieux Carré, whose name translates to “old square”.  The heart of the city was built in a sharp curve around the Mississippi River, and earned itself the name Crescent City. The ghost ‘Bleu’ reacts to certain buildings and streets and the loud whistles of the steam calliope, a steam pipe organ on the Steamboat Natchez. Bleu takes Simone through closed doors to reveal bits of her past.

The elegant Bourbon Orleans hotel where Simone stays has the reputation of being the most haunted hotel.  It is the home of many a scene in Bleu’s past. It was once home to the famous Quadroon Balls, where on the wooden balcony outside, it’s said that on quiet moonlit nights, the ghosts of a young woman and her suitor can be seen standing. At these balls, free women of colour, who were one quarter African-American, attended the balls chaperoned and were introduced to wealthy French suitors, who if agreeable to the mother, would buy the daughter a house and support her for life. This custom known as a ‘placate’ was unique to New Orleans.  The first born children considered themselves to be ‘Creoles of Colour’.  Later on the building became a convent and school (St Mary’s Academy), and the ballroom became their chapel.  There are said to be as many as 15 – 20 separate ghosts roaming the hotel and many of these are children running and playing in the rooms.

Mahogany Hall in Ms Lulu White’s mansion was quite elaborate.  She was known all around the district as Queen of the Demi-Monde because of her elegance and beauty.  Mahogany Hall was built of mostly marble and had about fifteen bedrooms.  It was the most beautiful house in Storyville. Ms. White was known for having the most beautiful and best women around, whose names were listed in a book called the Blue Book, which was given to the visitors so that they would know what services were offered as well as what women were available at each mansion.  Ms. White hosted parties in the parlours where we had men playing jazz music on the piano, one of whom was Louis Armstrong while some of the women danced naked for waiting clients. 

Back to the story. Bleu has opened up to Simone and recounts happy memories helping to make pomades and learning to use enfleurage, a perfume manufacturing technique. However there are scenes of much anger and sorrow, visions of rape, murder and remorse.  Just as Simone is starting to piece together these fragments there is a twist. Are there two ghosts? Images and stories of darker, angrier ghosts emerge, entangled with a love affair.

Will Simone be able to resolve these and put the troubled ghosts to rest?

The author has a talent to write descriptive and colourful text that evokes strong emotions in the reader.  For example “I reach out my hand, at once retracting it when something skims my arm, sending a shiver rolling through me. I step back, halted by a phantom grip. The laundry basket drops to my feet. The scented aura encroaches upon my face, icing my skin with a frigid blast as though it blew a forceful breath intentionally.”

I urge you to pick up a copy and start reading.

Viking Ships Unearthed

This Norwegian funerary warship was the grave of two women, one aged about 75 and the other 50. The women’s identities still present a mystery.  They died in A D 834 and had a magnificent burial, judging by the treasures they left behind.  Possibly Queen Åsa, the grandmother of Harald I (A.D. 860–940), the first king of united Norway, or maybe a sorceress.    

Reading this discovery of the Norwegian Oseberg oak longship in a farm near Tønsberg, Norway, reminded me of the historical novel “The Dig”  by John Preston and the subsequent film of the same name. 

On farmland in Sutton Hoo overlooking the river Debden in the UK,  the landowner Edith Petty wanted to discover what were the mysterious barrows on her land.  Ipswich museum introduced the landowner to Basil Brown, a Suffolk  labourer, insurance agent  and self taught astronomer and archeologist.  His finds did not sit nicely with men from the British Museum and Cambridge University who muscled in to take over. Brown’s discovery caused history books to be rewritten, but his name was only recently associated with the discovery.  But although his crucial contribution is now acknowledged, there is much that remains uncertain about the ship burial. Who was it honouring? The lead candidate is Raedwald, a powerful regional leader who died around 624, and who was part of a dynasty that claimed descent from the Norse god Woden. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity, while also being cannily careful not to upset the pagan gods.

The book, The Dig is a gripping and interesting read.

John Preston is also the author of A Very English Scandal, about the disgraced British politician Jeremy Thorpe.  After discovering that his aunt, Peggy Piggott, an archaeologist, prehistorian, and finds specialist, had been one of the key participants in the actual dig, Preston wrote the book The Dig, as a novelised account.

The film received five BAFTA awards. It is available on Netflix and in DVD form.

Tainted Peaches

Tainted Harvest by E. Denise Billups.

Her teaser : ”She escaped servitude for a worse fate. Now she wants everyone to know what happened. Travel writer Simone Doucet is searching for a meaningful life, but she hasn’t found a purpose yet. But after she accepts an assignment that takes her to Magnolia Sunrise – a historical bed-and-breakfast on the bluffs of Natchez, Mississippi – strange events begin to take place.”

I settled down for a comfortable read of this book and mystery but after the first few pages I was wide awake, sitting up, intriqued and living Simone’s nightmare.  The author had a way of writing such that you were immersed in the horrors and emotions of the characters.  I couldn’t put this down until the last few ‘happy’ pages.

This was a heart breaking story well written. It described some of the cruelties, hardships and conditions of the slaves at the end of the Civil War. Full credit to the author that the slavery appeared to be a sub plot, but in fact was the main one.

This story left me curious to find out more. Was there any truth behind the story? I discovered that The Devil’s Punchbowl is remembered as post American atrocity in Black history which took place in Natchez, (Adams County) Mississippi. In the book “Natchez” dedicated to Louise and Mary by Nola Nance Oliver describes the derivation of the name and describes the area. Although the inroads of the river have washed away the streets, and only a few buildings remain, one very interesting home, “Magnolia Vale”, has been preserved and is presented in her book.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile recreational road and scenic drive through three states. It roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor used by American Indians, “Kaintucks,” European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and future presidents.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is remembered as post American atrocity in Black history which took place in Natchez, (Adams County) Mississippi. 

After the American Civil War, a massive exodus of former slaves from Southern plantations trekked northwards to freedom. The town of Natchez quickly went from a population of 10,000 to near 100,000 people. In order to deal with the population influx of recent freedmen (formerly enslaved persons who have been released from slavery), a concentration camp was established by Union soldiers to essentially eradicate the slaves.  Don Estes, former director of the Natchez City Cemetery, said. “So, they decided to build an encampment for ’em at Devil’s Punchbowl which they walled off and wouldn’t let ’em out,”

The camp was called the Devil’s Punchbowl because of the way the area is shaped. The camp was located at the bottom of a cavernous pit with trees located on the bluffs above.  The women and children were locked behind the concrete walls of the camp and left to die from starvation. Many also died from the smallpox disease. In total, over 20,000 freed slaves were killed in one year, inside of this American concentration camp. However this number is contested.

Devils Punchbowl
Devils Punchbowl study area
Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles

Researcher Paula Westbrook adds that “The union army did not allow them to remove the bodies from the camp. They just gave ’em shovels and said bury ’em where they drop.”   Today the bluffs are known for the wild peach grooves, but the locals will not eat any of the fruit because some are aware of what has fertilized the trees. Also reported as “An American Concentration Camp so horrific it was erased from history.

The Jackson Free Press profiled Paula Westbrook. It said that she coordinates the Southern Paranormal and Anomaly Research Society, a society for ghost hunters. She supports herself through her Ghost Hunting Academy and her work at K-Mart.

The book quotes a poem with a line “For whose story was never told”  by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. He was an American sociologist, historian and a Pan-Africanist civil rights activist. He became the first African American to earn a doctorate and was one of the founders of the (NAACO) National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.