Book Review: 13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

13, rue Thérèse
Elena Mauli Shapiro
Reagan Arthur Books, February 2011
ISBN 9780316083287

These gloves haunt you.

But let us not be bothered with that now. Let us not slip onto our own body these accoutrements of the dead. Such a gesture would be a bit strange, a bit unsettling. Such a gesture is unnecessary when the object is before us and we can look at it at our leisure.

The gloves are flexible, strong, starkly black. They look like something to be worn to the funeral of a beloved someone; as you might have observed, they look like a widow’s gloves. The truth is that they are merely church gloves, worn every Sunday to holy offices. The color is so because white gloves are better suited to a virgin (or at the very least, a young and unmarried woman who could still plausibly undergo such a pantomime of purity). Black is the color of the true woman, one burdened with keeping a house and bearing children—a wife.

Louise has yearned keenly for the fulfillment of motherhood. She has been trying so hard. As of the day where our story hovers (Tuesday, November 6, 1928), she has not succeeded in this strenuous endeavor, though Lord knows she has been the most efficient puller of husbandly seed she had been allowed to be.

13, rue Thérèse is a delightful and clever origami box of a story. I’m probably not the first to make that analogy, nor do I think I will be the last, but it is an apt comparison: it is the kind of story that folds fiction and history, reality and imagination back and forth upon themselves until the reader scarcely knows which end is up.

One January, a visiting American professor of literature discovers a box of mementos hidden in a drawer in his Paris office. The box and its contents, he learns, belonged to Louise Brunet, who lived for many years at 13, rue Thérèse. Because he is a conscientious scholar, Trevor Stratton carefully catalogues each item, describing them in detail with accompanying scans in letters to an unnamed colleague. These images are included as part of the text, as are both the original French and Trevor’s translations of letters and postcards Louise saved. Several of the letters and photographs are from Louise’s intended, Camille, who is serving on the front line.

As Trevor’s description of the box’s contents progresses, however, he is drawn more deeply into solving the mystery of Louise Brunet. His catalogue gives way to imagined scenes from Louise’s life, but as a fever overtakes him the line between his imagination and the “history” he concocts for Louise grows increasingly blurry. Then the line disappears altogether:


At the sound of her name, her eyes pop open. There is someone in the room, someone with a male voice—an unfamiliar male voice. She struggles to cover her pale bare legs with a sheet and looks across the room to see me, sitting on the wooden chair her husband usually puts his discarded clothes on when he undresses at night. Her eyes grow wider as a violent flush overtakes her face.

“You!” she says. “You don’t exist!”

I answer as softly as possible, “I beg to differ.”

“How did you get here?”

“Same way I always do.” As I say this, I raise the small object I am holding in my hand, the same one she currently has on her nightstand…..

In his fevered state, Trevor has become so obsessed with Louise’s story – her story as he has pieced it together, fashioned like a quilt, from the box of mementos that are all she left behind – that he has somehow become part of it. Trevor’s story and Louise’s story, initially parallel, have intersected.

There is another point of intersection to this remarkable book, however: the box of mementos, and Louise Brunet, and  the apartment at 13, rue Thérèse, are all real. Elena Mauli Shapiro lived at that address in Paris as a girl, and her mother saved the box of mementos when Louise died, leaving no family to claim her belongings. The images interspersed throughout the text of 13, rue Thérèse are of the actual objects in Shapiro’s possession; for an added layer of intertextual – or is it intratextual? – interaction, many of them are accompanied by a code for smartphone scanning or a link to view the images in greater detail.

This book, Shapiro’s first, is a result of a longtime fascination – obsession, perhaps – she has nurtured for Louise Brunet. In that regard 13, rue Thérèse is a story not only about the box’s contents and the woman who kept them, but also a story about the power even the most ordinary objects can generate in a fertile imagination. It is also a story on the one hand about the challenges of “writing” a narrative from a seemingly unrelated assortment of objects (a challenge I can appreciate when I’m wearing my historian’s hat) and on the other about the porous boundary separating fact from fiction, fantasy and reality. I am only just beginning to appreciate all the different layers of reality and imagination and how Shapiro has choreographed their intersections in this book. I eagerly look forward to reading what she comes up with next.

Reviewed by Laura Taylor, March 2011, on Beyond the Blurb; reprinted here with permission.

Stinky Times in Historical Romances?

Though Kelley Heckart resides on the earthly realm with her husband and two dogs, she always has one foot  firmly planted in the otherworldly  realm of mystical creatures, fierce  warriors and magic. A psychic once  told her she has an old soul and  this comes across in her tales of  long ago places. An avid reader,  she turned her lifelong passion for  Celtic mythology into a way to  express herself through writing.

In her free time, she enjoys playing  her bass guitar, writing  poetry/lyrics, hiking, watching sunsets/sunrises and horseback  riding.

I write romances set in Dark Age Scotland or in ancient Greece. These time periods just happen to be my favorite settings. Occasionally I come across reader comments—they say they can’t read historical romance because they can’t get over the stink factor in any time period before running water. I hope to enlighten some of these ill-informed people.

Sure, there were some really smelly people back then, but there are some really smelly people now. Not everyone has the same level of hygiene even in these modern times with easy access to clean water and soap. In the Late Middle Ages when cities became overcrowded and the rivers polluted with sewage, I agree that things got considerably malodorous all around. But even in the truly stinky times there had to be some people that were fastidious about keeping themselves clean.

One thing modern people tend to overlook is that before electricity people were around fires all day and all night. They smelled like smoke and smoke is a natural deodorizer that absorbs sweat in clothes. In areas where there was plenty of water people enjoyed bathing in water scented with rose petals, heather, lavender or any other native herb that added a pleasant fragrance. The ancient Celts invented soap (a mixture of ashes and animal fat) so people bathed with soap and water. In areas where water was scarce people bathed with scented oils. Egypt was one place where people used fragrant oils. There were also ways to brush teeth—with green hazel twigs, or by chewing on mint or parsley.

And when all else fails, I have a ploy for making sure my two main characters smell nice before they engage in any romantic activities. My female characters have a need for cleanliness. Today this is known as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This behavior makes my heroines a bit quirky, but at least they smell nice and they make sure their mates smell nice too.

Here’s something to think about when reading or deciding to read a historical romance—ancient/medieval people didn’t necessarily stink, they just smelled different than modern people—with a hint of smoke, herbs or fragrant oils. And they might be compulsive about bathing—at least in my books.

Kelley Heckart

‘Timeless tales of romance, conflict & magic’

Book Review: Forget to Remember by Alan Cook

Forget To Remember
Alan Cook
AuthorHouse, 2010
ISBN No. 978-1452072340
Trade Paperback

What would life be like if you had no identity?  Imagine not having a social security number or a driver’s license or even knowing your own name.  That situation is exactly what Carol Golden is facing once she has recovered from a violent attack.

Rigo Rameriz is a young man who works as a dishwasher in a restaurant in the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California.  When Rigo takes out the garbage to put in the dumpster behind the restaurant he discovers Carol unconscious in the dumpster and calls 911 for help.  Carol is taken to the hospital where she recovers her health but not her memory.

Rigo’s family opens their home to Carol who has taken the name Carol Golden.  Rigo does his best to help Carol find her way back and discover her identity.  With the help of Frances Moran, a genetic genealogist and an expert in DNA, Carol conducts a search but no one seems to be looking for her.  The only clue Carol has is that she feels she has spent some time in England.

Finally Frances receives an email from a probate attorney, Paul Vigiano, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The attorney stated that he had been checking Frances’ website on a regular basis and that he felt that Carol could possibly be the granddaughter of his client.  The granddaughter, named Cynthia Sakai, had been missing for two years.  The attorney must find Cynthia before time runs out.  If Cynthia isn’t found her parents estate will be turned over to charity. After discussions between Frances and Vigiano, Frances contacts Cynthia’s grandmother who agrees to a DNA testing.

Eventually Carol travels to North Carolina and meets the grandmother but things don’t go smoothly in North Carolina and Carol obtains the funds to travel and follow in Cynthia’s footsteps to see if she can discover what has happened to the girl.  Carol proves to be very resourceful and has a lot of talent in many areas.

To say more than this would give away the story but it is an exciting one and an excellent read.  Will the person who has tried to kill Carol attempt it again?  Who is this unknown person?   Will Carol find out her true identity?  Pick up a copy of Forget to Remember and find the answers to these questions.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, January 2011.

Book Review: The Devil by Ken Bruen

The Devil
Ken Bruen
Minotaur Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-64696-7

The Devil reads like a cocktail of Xanax and Jameson, with a side of Guiness. Maybe that’s because Jack Taylor absorbs that combination on practically every page of the novel.  Describing a book by Ken Bruen is no easy task, and the smart thing would be to not make any attempt to do that, but merely to write anything that comes to mind.  But that would just about describe the novel, wouldn’t it?

Taylor, at the outset, is denied entry into the United States because of his unsavory background.  So what does he do?  Naturally, head for the airport bar, where he meets what appears to be, throughout the rest of the book, the devil incarnate.  It appears that the devil has a grudge against Taylor, who has interfered in the past with some of His plans.  Along the way, various contacts of Taylor’s meet their deaths at the hands of the supposed devil.

There is no way to describe a Bruen novel, except to say “far out.” The writing is always interesting, albeit sometimes incomprehensible, the theme frequently unusual, as in this case.  “Noir” in every sense of the word.  But recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2010.

Characters Who Have Shaped Me

Kathleen Delaney, author of And Murder for Dessert and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. Her long time love of small towns sent her looking through the Carolina’s for a new place to settle, Gaffney. Limestone College, a delightful historic district, and great library immediately drew her in. She lives in a wonderful 100 year old house, with a wrap around front porch, where she and her dogs can wile away a summer afternoon, and a big office, lined with bookcases, where she can spend her days writing. And, as always, reading.

Kathleen‘s latest mystery, Murder Half Baked, is hot off the presses. She has returned today to talk about how the characters in the books we read can influence us and the way we live our lives.

Usually writers talk about shaping characters, about how they grow and change as the story evolves. And that’s true. We live with them, sculpt them, tweak them, change them if they let us, but we don’t always think of how they affect the reader. Oh, I don’t mean in the context of the story exactly, but how the characters themselves, their attitudes, the way they live their lives, the way they treat other people, can have an effect on someone else’s life.

My brother wrote me an interesting email the other day. He has a habit of doing that, shooting off an idea that makes me stop in mid-stream and think about something that hadn’t been there before. He had just finished re-reading Anne of Green Gables and wanted to talk about it. I hadn’t read it for years, so begged off until I could find my old copy and catch up. In the meantime, he asked what character had most influenced me during our growing up years, and why.  Now, there is an interesting question.

He said that the person he was most influenced by he didn’t discover through childhood books. Instead, it wasn’t until he was a young man that he discovered Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced millions of people in all kinds of ways over the years, but the way Atticus handled his role as a single father had never occurred to me. It did to my brother. The balanced way Atticus approached his growing children’s needs, how he listened to them, how careful he was to be firm but fair, how he brought them into the discussion of the events that were going on in the town, my brother said, influenced greatly how he tried to bring up his own children. Must have worked. They’re pretty great people.

I read more growing up than my brother did, so have earlier memories of books, characters that influenced me. Jo, of course, in Little Women, all the animal books, I remember the dogs, cats and horses more than I do any of the people. As I got older there were other characters that are forever seared into my memory. Who could forget Scarlett, kneeling in the garden, digging up roots, vowing she’d never be hungry again. Or Jane Eyre as she returns to a burned Fairfield and a now blinded Mr. Rochester, or Oliver Twist as he holds up that wretched bowl and asks for more?  I could go on and on talking about characters that I’ll never forget. But that wasn’t what he asked me. Was there one who had an effect on my life, on the way I have lived? Was there one person, one character whose behavior I’ve tried to copy? I’ve thought about that a lot. Finally, I came up with one. Pollyanna.

Stop laughing. Go back and read it again. Pollyanna wasn’t a simpering little thing who ran around with a holier-than-thou attitude. She had some real problems, but what she really had, given to her by her father, was a realistic coping skill. It was called the Glad Game.  It started when Pollyanna, daughter of missionaries, got crutches in the missionary barrel instead of the doll she wanted. Her father suggested that, instead of being so sad, she should be glad she didn’t need them. Good little girl that she was, she complied. Sounds sappy, and probably was, but what he did was throw her a life preserver, and teach her how to find one when life tried to drown her.

Everyone needs coping skills. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t have stuff thrown at us through life that we think we can’t deal with. I know I have, and these last two years, while I have learned to live without a leg, learned to walk again, learned that I can do just about anything that I did before, I’ve found they came in quite handy. Not that I’ve run around—wheeled around—playing the Glad Game, but I’ve learned you can cope with almost everything if you give yourself enough time and have some kind of life preserver while you do.

I throw a whole lot of things at the characters in my books that require pretty good coping skills. Maybe that’s why I like writing mysteries. I like to see how these people work out all those problems I present them with. In mysteries, coping is what its all about. I try to make my characters as real, and as memorable as possible while they struggle with murder, mayhem, and mind numbing tragedy. And if any one of them ever is able to influence someone’s life in even the tiniest little way, my cup will runneth over.

Thanks, Pollyanna

Book Review: You Are Next by Katia Lief

You Are Next
Katia Lief
Avon, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-18090-2-6
Mass Market Paperback

This riveting new book by Katia Lief centers around “a twenty-seven-year-old mild-mannered loner named Martin Price,” a serial killer dubbed the Domino Killer, so called because at the scene of each of his crimes he leaves a message, spelled out in dominoes, if the police can figure out the clues.  As the book begins, he has escaped from custody, leaving a last message that brings the police, in the form of detective first class Billy Staples, to the door of former Detective Karin Schaeffer.  Karin, now 33 years old, has received a medical discharge from the police force, having suffered an unthinkable blow at Price’s hands: the murder of her husband and
three-year-old daughter.  “There had been others before that but it was my family’s murders that had put JPP [her own name for Price: Just Plain Psycho] away once and for all.”  But now, apparently, not quite. Karin had first become involved in the hunt for the killer following the murder of five members of a family in Maplewood, New Jersey [her old beat before she quit the force and her old life, believing that she was to blame for her family’s deaths], and which had led to his obsession with her and her family.

This time the dominoes Price left behind contained her street address in Brooklyn, New York, where she’s lived for the last five months. The previous note he had left for her, nearly a year before, was written in her daughter’s blood:  You Are Next.  His m.o. has always been to wipe out all members of whatever family he has focused on, and now is apparently no exception.  The effect on one of his potential victims is made palpable, as Karin describes her brother, Jon: “Nearly translucent skin revealing a lattice of fear, tension, and
determination that had replaced the bones, muscles and cartilage out of which the average face was built.  His was no average face, not anymore, not since every iota of his being had geared itself to the survival of his family.”  Only adding, of course, to Karin’s sense of guilt.

Karin is ambivalent about seeking protection, almost welcoming the prospect of joining her beloved family in the next world; the reader will find it almost impossible to comprehend her unfathomable loss. [On her last day on the police force she had swallowed an entire bottle of pills.]  In this intense rendering, the writing is imbued with an ever-present sense of danger and dread.  The book is nearly impossible to put down, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2010.

A Late-in-the-Year But Happy Easter