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Monday, July 18, 2011

Iron House by John Hart

Iron House
by John Hart
St. Martin's Press
Published: July 12, 2011
ISBN Hardcover: 978-0-312-38034-2 ($25.99)
ISBN eBook: 978-1-4299-9031-8 ($12.99)
432 pages
I read an Advance Readers' Edition received from the publisher.

Iron House sucked me in fast and it was hard to put down. I was in the mood for a good page-turner and this book left me satisfied.

Michael is a trained killer with a heart who has fallen in love and wants out of the mob business after his girlfriend, Elena, tells him she's pregnant. As a teenager Michael had been taken in by a mob boss who'd heard about the tough orphan who controlled his own little piece of the streets of New York City after fleeing from a brutal orphanage in North Carolina. The mob boss becomes the father he never had, a father who loves Michael more than he does his biological son. The mob boss released Michael from the business, but the two guys left in charge of the business don't agree with the old man's decision. The old man dies and everything hits the fan. Elena's life is on the line and then so is Julian's life. Julian is Michael's younger brother, the brother he hasn't seen since the night he ran away from the orphanage with a bloody knife in his hand.

Michael finds himself running from the only family he knew in order to protect the new family he wants only to get tangled up in the lies and secrets of the old family he didn't know he had. There's a wealthy senator and his beautiful wife, brutal boys, sadistic men, and lots of dead bodies in this story, but ultimately its about love and family and how love and family mean different things at different times to different people.  There are several scenes with graphic violence involving torture but they are not gratuitous within the context of the story and convey the seriousness of the situation and show why some psychic wounds run so deep.

***Spoiler alert start*** Don't read the next paragraph if you plan on reading this novel.
There is one hole in the novel and although it doesn't weaken the story that much, it is rather obvious, and so I feel obligated to mention it. For the first 148 pages, Michael is pretty much obsessed with keeping Elena glued to his side and safe from Jimmy (the man who trained him to be a killer) and Stevan (his brother, the boss's biological son) who are out to kill her for revenge. But after Elena and Michael have a disagreement, he doesn't go after her when she leaves, saying she needs time away. He doesn't worry about her safety for another 146 pages, he just pines for her and hope she calls. I can understand why Hart wrote it this way because during this time a whole lot of other plot details unfold that advance the story, but it is a pronounced lapse in the characterization of Michael. I don't see any other way around this problem, other than having Michael chase after her, but then the other details would not have unfolded. Or, he could have re-written the novel using a more omniscient point of view, but then the reader wouldn't be as attached to Michael and his predicament. 
***alert over***

Iron House is the first novel I've read by John Hart. His first three books were NYT bestsellers and he's won two Edgar Awards. I decided to give Iron House a try because my friend Lynette loved his previous books and its that personal recommendation that I value most.

If you're looking for a new thriller this summer, Iron House is a good one. It's an action story and a bit of a love story, a thriller that's about the deep wounds that only one's family of origin can inflict, and the potential healing power of love.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

First edition cover

The Circular Staircase
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Bobbs-Merrill, September 1908

While browsing around Project Gutenberg, I came upon books by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).  Her name sounded vaguely familiar. Does it to you, too? Upon Googeling her name and seeing her accomplishments, I figured I had to have read about her in the past either through studying women writers or mystery writers.

Here are a few facts about Rinehart:
  • She was considered the American Agatha Christie
  • She created the Had-I-But-Know school of mystery writing
  • She's credited with creating the phrase "The butler did it"
  • She created a costumed super criminal called The Bat which became Bob Kane's inspiration for Batman
You can read more about Rinehart here at Wikipedia or check out Mike Grost's more detailed assessment of her writing here.

The Circular Staircase is a good story and a good mystery. I thought I had it figured it out a few times but then I didn't. Even when I did, it didn't play out exactly like I'd thought it would.

When reading "old" novels, I'm sometimes more interested in the historical tidbits and cultural artifacts which are mentioned. In this book my favorite was Wrinkle Eliminators: 


1905 ad for Wrinkle Eradicators. Image source click here.
I can often over-look stilted language or simplistic plots in older novels. In the case of The Circular Staircase I feel like I got the best of everything. The novel was published in 1908 and I thought the main character's voice --Rachel Innes, through whose perspective we get the story--was fresh and consistent through out.  Rachel Innes, or Aunt Ray as her niece and nephew call her, is a filthy rich society lady who rents a house outside of the city for six months while her home is being remodeled.  Strange things have been going on at the house she rents and rumor are starting. Reading this so soon after The Haunting of Hill House, I was, like Eleanor, susceptible to suggestion. Some of the servants fear the place is haunted. 

The house belongs to a Mr. Armstrong, owner of a local back who has left for California with his wife, step-daughter, and his doctor. Strange noises are heard in the house at night, a figure is seen standing outside in the dark, and scrape marks are found on the stairs. Armstrong's son is then shot dead in the house, the blast awakens the entire household and the mystery is off in high gear. Why didn't Armstrong use a key? Who was in the house that would want him dead? The niece and nephew start acting weird, the Armstrong bank fails, and the niece's fiancé is implicated. The strange noises continue. More strange figures are seen around the house. Servants come and go.

Rinehart
I didn't read any criticism before reading the novel and I'm glad I didn't. Some reviews make Rinehart's books sound simplistic and dated, but, like I said, that wasn't my experience. Yes, there are some attitudes and references that may repel contemporary readers. Most glaring is referring to African Americans as "darkys."  But keeping the time period in mind, the main black character, Thomas the butler, was a slave in his younger years. The Civil War had ended just about 40 years before this novel was written. I have no idea what Rinehart's personal racial views were, but she seems to use racial attitudes to complicate the plot. Thomas is found with nearly $100 in his wallet (which was a lot of dough in 1908). Mr Jamieson, the detective, says, "Almost two month's wages--and yet those darkies seldom have a penny. Well--what Thomas knew will be buried with him" (83). I did not get the impression that Jamieson is racist. Is he just using the current lingo and stating a socio-economic assumption of the time period?  Or is Rinehart using readers' racial attitudes (if they're racist) to throw them off from solving the murder?

If you like classic mysteries, check it out. There are several sites from which you may download a free digital edition. I got mine from Project Gutenberg here.


 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Library: Iowa City 2fer: Carnegie & New

On a recent literary themed day-trip to Iowa City with some friends, a must-see on my list was the old Carnegie Library. The new public library is right across the street. Below are some pictures of both.

First, the old...

Carnegie Library
212 South Linn Street
Iowa City, IA

Dedicated: October 27, 1904
Cost: $35,000
Current use: apartments

We thought it was very cool that the Carnegie Library building is now used as apartments . . . until we got closer.  No offense to those who live there, but the building has that aura of neglect that often infects older dwellings in college towns. I've lived in my fair share of those, but never one so cool as an old library.
The tiny people in front from left to right are me, Missy, and Ruth.
Can you see the fake owl circled above? The landlord or someone is trying to keep the pigeons away . . . but judging from the amount of pigeon poop directly below, unless the owl was a very recent addition, it is not working. My aunt once tried a fake owl on her apartment balcony and it didn't work for her either.

Sign in one of the apartment windows. Apparently pigeon poop around the front entrance isn't the only problem tenants face.
Neat gate . . . probably Poe-creepy at night.

Now the new...

Iowa City Public Library
123 South Linn Street
Iowa City, IA

Diagonally across the street from the old Carnegie library.
Originally opened: 1981
Designed by: Engberg Anderson Design Partnership of Milwaukee, WI
Built by: Knutson Construction
Renovated & expanded in 2004
Square feet: 81,276

2010 statistics:
  • Library card holders: 67,036
  • Visits: 746,556
  • Circulation: 1,513,052
  • Books: 175,589
  • Non-print items: 36,062
  • Print & electronic references: 6,789 
  • Periodicals & newspapers: 527


The new Iowa City Public Library. Picture taken from the steps of the Carnegie building.
The new library is in the Ped Mall, the heart of downtown Iowa City. Library in the background. Pictured are my road trippin' book buddies: Missy, Cayt, and Ruth.

Inside view near circulation.
The Book End: the library's used bookstore. I purchased a copy of Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife here for $5. Hardcover. A steal. My friend Cayt was reading it and highly recommended it. The librarian looked at it forlornly when she was ringing me up as she didn't know they had a copy. This was before the book won the Orange Prize, back when Emma Donoghue's Room was the top contender for the award.

A model of the Carnegie Library on display in the reference section.

Take note: cameras in the restrooms.
What kid wouldn't want to run through this colorful entrance into the land of books? Or, if they prefer, the stairs to the right lead to a slide that little ones may use to enter their section of the library.
 
Playhouse made of books in the kids section. I want one.
The new library is open and airy throughout. This is the main foyer.
Plaque in the main foyer

My next post will feature some of the non-library literary sites that we visited in Iowa City.


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