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As a result of the comments from last week's diary I downloaded four books/samples that were recommended there and elsewhere.

The first (read cheapest) was Murder Takes Time, by Giacomo Giammatteo. One day, after reading the first chapter, I coincidently found these words in a blog post, Why Readers Give Up On Books, on the website Ancient Children: Journal of My Creative Life:

But profanity gives minor offense compared to graphic scenes of sex or violence, or depictions of racial hatred and other ugly aspects of human nature. As long as darkness exists in the world, it will find a home in the imaginations of some writers. I’m one of them. Still, I understand when readers choose not to subject themselves to stories that are ugly or depressing. I threw up in the middle of Naked Lunch and finished it anyway, but others might sanely choose to spare their stomachs further distress.
I am one of those with a moderately weak stomach in that I can tolerate and even not notice some graphic violence, such as that in The Keeper of Lost Causes and Holy Thief.  But I found the violence in Murder Takes Time to be more than I could comfortably handle. It is possible that the worst of the violence was over after the first chapter, but I wasn't willing to find out. That said, the writing is very good, as proved by the fact that it was so disturbing. And just because it is not my cup of tea does not mean that any other reader wouldn't enjoy this work. As a matter of fact, I would love it if someone who did read and enjoy this novel would write a diary on it. Monday Murder Mystery should encompass all mystery genres, not just those that top my list.

The second novel was the Children of the Tantalus: Niobe and Pelops, the first in a trilogy, Tapestry of Bronze, by Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood, based on an ancient Greek myth. Judging by the first few chapters, it is intriguing, well done, and may appear in this series down the road.

The third was a series by Julia Spencer-Fleming that has been mentioned in the comments before, about a Episcopal Priest, Clare Fergusson and the Chief of Police, Russ Van Alstyne in a small town in upstate New York. That one, In the Bleak Midwinter, opened with one of those special first sentences:

It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.
You just know it is going to be a good ride.

And while compiling the list of books for last Monday, I finally read glorificus' April 2 entry. For those of you who don't know, that was the night she filled in for me while I spent his last night with my husband at Desert Regional Hospital. For months I had avoided really reading that diary (sorry, glorificus). But when I did, I found a wealth of recommendations in the comments which is why I included it last week under Readers' Favorite Mysteries.

From those comments, I picked a book that contained a short story and a novella, The Children and Champawat, by Lia Matera who is, coincidently, a fellow Kossack. Her work was described by Mnemosyne as "Smart, savvy, lots of interesting edge" and as a bonus it included a short story, a format that I have promised myself to include in my regular reading.

Lia Matera is the author of twelve novels, ten short stories, and a novella. She is a graduate of Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, where she was editor-in-chief of the Constitutional Law Quarterly. She is a member of the California Bar and was a Teaching Fellow at Stanford Law School before becoming a full-time writer.  

Two of her novels were nominated for the mystery genre's top prize, the Edgar Allan Poe Award. Three were nominated for the Anthony Award, and two were nominated for the Macavity Award. Her story, "Dead Drunk," originally printed in Scott Turow's, Guilty As Charged, won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Short Story of 1996. A free podcast of it is available from CrimeCityCentral.com and iTunes.  

Eight of her novels, two anthologies and two singles are currently in e-bookstores. Simon & Schuster will soon add four more of her books to those shelves.  

Matera, Lia (2012-10-11). The Children & Champawat (Kindle Location 1646).  . Kindle Edition.

Previews of her work are available at her website: LiaMatera.com

"The Children" is a story that takes you to a different time and place and asks how far people will go to protect their children.

This story is set in Washington, D.C. during the Spanish Influenza epidemic that killed 650,000 at the end of World War I. Although I did a diary about women in Britain during this era here, I hadn't looked at what was going on in the States at the time. And to be honest, I have never given much thought to what it was like to be a domestic in America in that era.  

Ella awakened face-down on the concrete. She spat out grit that swirled in the night wind, then rolled painfully to her side.
And so we are introduced to Ella as she is thrown to the curb, quite literally, as that was the disposal method for those who succumbed to the Spanish Flu. A cart would travel through the neighborhoods at night picking up the bodies of those who had died the previous day.
Ella knew, from nights watching through the attic window, that two men in rubber boots would climb from the wagon's benchlike seat. As their horses stomped and fussed, they'd bend over her. From above, she'd look like a rolled carpet or bundle of bedding. Each would pick up one end, then they'd stagger to the open back of the wagon. With a practiced swing or two, they'd hoist her onto the stack. Men had been doing this since the middle ages.

And how was 1918 different than 1318? People were dragged away to prison for speaking against their ruler, thanks to the Sedition Act. Girls were burned alive, not at the stake but in locked shirtwaist factories. Men were tortured and lynched by mobs, not of peasants but of Klansmen. The poor fought wars so the rich could divide the spoils. And again, the streets rattled with wagons full of pestilent corpses.

Ella was a nanny who caught the flu, was given up for dead but survived that grim night at the curb and recovered, only to find that everyone else in the Kingston household that employed her was ill or dying and that she could do little to help.

We are given a look at the immigrant experience in America during the first two decades of the 20th century. There were 9 million new immigrants in the first decade alone, and Ella was one who came ashore a babe in the arms of her mother.

Her story is picked up in "The Champawat" as she flees D.C. for the West, clutching the jewels she has taken from the dying Mrs. Kingston. A US Marshal appears on the platform as the train pulls into Chicago and engages Ella in conversation. It finally occurs to her that perhaps he is not seeking a thief, but rather a radical anarchist plotting sedition.
She wanted to laugh in the marshal's face. What was it he saw when he looked at her? She'd grown up with harmless dreamers, not bombers. Orphaned at 15, she'd gone to work in the shirt factories. For the last two years she'd been a servant, wiping little fingers and changing diapers. The most seditious thing she'd ever done was pine in loneliness for a pacifist. And Nicky didn't go Mexico to plot violence, he went there to reject it.

Nicky is the man she loved who fled to Mexico to avoid service in WWI. As the daughter of an immigrant, she easily makes her way into the growing labor movement as it prepares for and initiates Seattle's General Strike of 1919, only to find that the US Marshal is still on her tail. Stalking her, very much like a tiger. Waiting for her to bolt and run.

This was the era of Emma Goldman and the Palmer Raids, of anarchists, unions, immigrants and clear federal overreach. Lia Matera brings it all to life again in this book.

But it reminded me of why I don't like short stories. They are too short. When I meet characters I like I want to know them better. I want to follow them as they grow and change. Mostly I just want to know how it all turns out. and short stories really can't tell me that. I want a big fat book that has limbs and branches that combine into a tale of the era as well as of the people that lived through it. I am looking forward to more stories featuring Ella and the time in which she lived.

After reading that book I went to Amazon to see what else I could find by this author, and discovered a book that had a one star rating. This was clearly an outlier as all of the other books by this author received rave reviews. When I read the review I knew I had to read the book:

The story was OK at times and could have been somewhat interesting but for the author's snide political insertions thoughout the book.
Me, I love snide. Especially political snide. I had to read that book.

The reviewer went on to say she regretted taking the book on her cruise. I mean, how could I resist? If the political opinions were enough to disturb a cruiser, I knew I wanted to read them!

I found A Radical Departure to be a smart, funny and thoughtful mystery novel. This is the second in a series about Willa Jansson, a young lawyer in San Francisco. Originally published in 1988, it was updated when it came out in ebook format in June, 2012.

Willa is an Associate at a San Francisco partnership noted for its defense of progressive causes. As a matter of fact, the head of the firm, Julian Warneke himself a noted progressive, had defended Willa's parents on multiiple occasions, the most recent having been a matter of the smashed nose cone of a missile. The novel opens at a staff luncheon in a tony restaurant.

By evening, the grand old man of left-wing politics was in the hospital with hemlock poisoning, the restaurant was swearing it didn't garnish its desserts with poisonous roots, the police were knocking at my apartment door with a search warrant, and reporters were chortling with glee to discover I'd been a suspect in the so-called "law school murders."

Suspects abound, and even include Willa's radical mother who inherits Warneke's million dollar home. Each one is cleverly drawn in a plot strewn with red herrings and yes, snide political comments. Of course, here at Daily Kos we call them realistic observations.

Willa seems to balance on a tiny pinpoint of space between radical idealism and pragmatic reality. She defends a young man who refuses her best legal advice and insists on making a political point even if it costs him time in jail. Although we tend to admire those who are committed enough to make real sacrifices for their political beliefs, that admiration generally comes long after the sacrifice is made. Clearly Willa has that admiration, but is also able to see and regret the waste of a young life.

It was fun to watch as Willa's onetime boyfriend (who gave her a very special remembrance) reappears as a private detective working for the first wife of the murder victim. And her struggle against the attraction she begins to feel for the detective that she simply can't stand. Humor and suspense combine for an truly enjoyable read.

Backtracking, I next read the first book in the Willa Jansson series, Where Lawyers Fear To Tread. This is the story of Willa's last year at Malhousie Law, in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. Since I lived in the Fox Plaza at Polk and Market for a few years during the 70s I felt right at home in the City of this novel.
Law schools don't have football teams, they have law reviews. Law reviews may look like large paperbacks, but they are arenas. Legal scholars maul each other in polite footnotes, students scrimmage and connive for editorial positions, and the intellectual bloodlust of law professors is appeased, rah rah.
Willa is the senior articles editor for the Malhousie Law Review until the Editor in Chief, Susan Green, is murdered on campus, in the Law Review offices where sixteen students work on the review. Another editor claims the top job, and is also murdered. As murders and attacks continue, the number of editors and suspects shrink. Raised by her radical activist parents to not trust the law enforcement community, she does her own investigating. I was struck by how well constructed her theories of the crimes appeared, and how plausible they all were until they weren't.

These are laugh out loud funny books so be careful where you read them. Great characters and snide political comments. I think I am in love with Willa's parents, or at least distantly related. Although I stayed within the law (sort of) I knew those who were as dedicated to political causes. Granted, Willa's parents are dressed up in a little exaggeration, but they are not all that different from those I knew.

And I also knew women who were not afraid to be, well, women. It seems that every fictional male detective spends half of his time in someone's bed. It was refreshing to read of a woman who was not a virgin. And one who even, don't tell anyone, smoked dope.

I feel very fortunate to have discovered this writer, and glad that I still have the rest of the Willa Jansson series to read as well as the Laura di Palma series. Much of her earlier work has been updated and released as e-books, available at all of the major online retailers. Check her website for previews and more info.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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