The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark by Meryl Gordon

Publication Date: May 27, 2014

Huguette Clark, born near the beginning of the 20th century, was the daughter of the nation’s second richest man and grew up in luxury. She was a lively and social philantropist who relatives one day realized had become gradually more distant until she virtually disappeared. What happened to this once vibrant personality?

 

 

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark is an infuriating read. It is a dispassionate account of this life of Huguette Clark and what happened to her once she went into isolation written by journalist, Meryl Gordon. What is infuriating about the book is the connection that Gordon builds between her subject and reader and then the revelation that she was basically a tool for gain in her latter years outlined in objective fashion that could not make clearer the motivations of the century old woman’s carers. 

Before reading The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark, I had not heard of the lively Senator from Montana, William A. Clark. He and his first wife, Katherine, had seven children before her death in 1893. After Katherine’s death, William married his teenaged ward, Anna, with whom he had two children, the youngest of which was Huguette. Gordon’s account of Clark’s early life and the lives of her parents are through and when she embarks on the latter chapters of Clark’s life relies on interviews with key players who seem to have been surprisingly open with the journalist along with court documents that chronicled the struggle between the heiress’ family and the people paid to care for her. Clark lays out in a linear fashion the relationship of Huguette and her parents, the loss of her older, adored sibling and her relationship with her remaining and much older half-siblings with whom she was distant and cordial. Huguette’s mother, by all accounts, was a colorful woman who reveled in her daughter and indulged her while making clear that she was in this life on her own. A brief marriage that went bad cut through the middle of Huguette’s isolated existence.

The sign of a really good book was when the back cover is closed, the reader heads to Amazon and buys everything the author has written and that is truly what happened in this case. The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark is confounding. Huguette’s relatives had a relationship of routine and it took them coming together to realize that no one had heard from her. How she wound up in the hands of people who seem to have had genuine affection for her but were eager to use her to their advantage isn’t a perplexing mystery. She was grateful for their attention. The e-mails that flew between the hospital higher ups and their fundraising department is beyond shameful. Huguette may have preferred living in the hospital with her precious nurse and seemed quite aware that the all hour dedication she gained was contingent on making the woman very wealthy.

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark is really a story of morality. People knew what was going on with Huguette and her carers and looked the other way. Did they believe the woman was better off or did they look for their own payday? You make the call. I will tell you that I was furious when I finished reading this book. I become so engaged with Huguette and her story and the steps that led her to be the woman who would pay – and pay dearly – for company was just heart breaking. The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette Clark is a must read. Seriously, pick it up today.

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To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild

Publication Date: March 6, 2012

To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 is a look at the oft ignored World War I moral objectors along with those people who wholeheartedly believed in the cause.

 

 

 

Is it the job of the historian to moralize and pontificate? History is propaganda written by the winners so to read a book highlighting the moral objectors is supremely interesting. To sermonize that an event already placed in history shouldn’t have happened is not appealing. People died in World War I. It happened. It’s done. It’s 100 years in the past. History is about facts and while “woulda” “shoulda” and “coulda” are nice to suggest that a war in which an estimated 37 million people (civilian and military) died was a waste of human life. Maybe. But it happened and isn’t it a disservice to chide key figures in history making portraying them as Keystone Cop archetypes. Despite my distaste at the author’s position, the story of the objectors is one that should be told and was presented with delicacy, mindful of the challenges they faced.

To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 begins with the Boer War which took place from 1899-1902. The focus, of course, is British and the attention given to the war efforts of other countries ranges from dismissive to non-existent. Hochschild divides his attention between battlefield anecdotes and the stories of the protest movement. There’s a hero and villain mentality set. The good and just people speak out about the needless loss of life while the people whipping up frenzy for the war twirl their mustaches and rub their hands together in a metaphorical reflection of the animated Snidley Whiplash. The new information is in relation to the protestors and I think To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 would have been more interesting had Hochschild stuck with that angle instead of diverting to well tread ground in the war effort. Powerful families are divided by ideology and people who suffered great loss that they felt was needless are painted with a loving and valiant brush.

Okay, so I’m going a little hard on the author. It’s okay to have favorites and agree with one side over the other. The problem with preference in this case is that it really is at the expense of what is, at it’s core, a pretty good book. We, as people, do tend to be for or against issues and do tend to paint the other side with the broad stroke of ignorance, at best, and cruelty, at worst. As a history of World War I, To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 falls short but as a narration of a few key players in the effort against the war, it excels even if some of what reads as hyperbole should be taken with a grain of salt.

I’m going to call a To End All Wars; a Story of Love, Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918 a “must be read for oneself” book. Hochschild is well regarded as a historian and has a critically acclaimed bibliography of era and occasion focused works. Pick it up if the description appeals and let me know what you think.

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Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham

 

Publication Date: January 5, 2016

 

In 1954, Juliet Hulme and her friend, Pauline Parker, killed Pauline’s mother. The crime, committed by two teenage girls who lived rich fantasy lives and simply did not want to be separated when Juliet would be sent to South Africa, rocked Auckland, New Zealand. Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century chronicles the crime, trial and Peter Jackson film that led to the hunting down of the two long released convicts.

 

 

It seems a widely known fact that English author, Anne Perry, was born Juliet Hulme and spent five years in prison after she and Pauline Parker were convicted of killing Pauline’s mother. Given the first name when released from prison and returned to England, she took her stepfather’s last name. A secret for many years, the release of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures brought the crime back to the public eye and interest in tracking down the now elderly teen killers.

In Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, Graham lays out in minute detail the connection between the girls, their crime, the trial and what happened after with an in depth psychological analysis of what essentially seemed a thrill kill. Where Graham is quite through in the 384 page work, he could have used a good editor. The trial portion of the piece is retold in excruciating detail showing witnesses debating if the crime was motivated by a sexual relationship. We get it, people at the time thought they were lesbians but in the grand scheme, did it matter? They had an oddly dependent relationship whether it was sexual or is not the point. The narrative at the point of the trial is weighty and, frankly, boring. What is interesting is the lasting affects the trial seems to have had on the ancillary players. Graham doesn’t celebrate the more salacious facts of the case merely presenting what experts said on the stand and representing the disbelief of some of the litigators. They both had somewhat isolated childhoods during which time they were chronically ill and both seem to have been somewhat less of a priority for the people who were supposed to value them most. More is known about Juliet – the now Anne Perry – so it does seem that the focus of the piece is the now famous author.

What is clear from Graham’s telling is that real story will never be known unless one of the two key players decides to open up about the day they decided to kill Pauline’s mother. Perry has spoken about the crime even appearing on an episode of the UK chat show Tricia but really has only gone into already known facts. She is exceptionally gracious to herself in that she seems to have no remorse and when asked if she thinks about the victim, she says that she doesn’t because she didn’t really know her. There’s a vanity in ending of life and not thinking of the victim as inconsequential. One would hope that Miss. Perry is simply poorly spoken though she is shown to be sharply intelligent and have a way with words. Parker, from what I’ve read is a recluse. That their relationship was so dependent and the mother was killed allegedly because they would be separated it’s rather surprising that both of them said that they hadn’t be in contact since their release. I audibly gasped upon reading that Anne Perry, an author I’ve read but never looked into her life, was one of the teens. That she writes crime fiction makes me wish that I remembered the motivation of her fictional killers to perhaps look through fiction to fact, but that’s never a sure thing. Most of the non-fiction work flowed well. As mentioned, the courtroom play by play got a little weighty and I will admit to putting the book down multiple times during the course of the narrative. At it’s base, even if one didn’t grow up to be a famous author, is fascinating. I’ve read in other reviews that some readers were thrown off by the overtly English formality to the writing but, to be fair, I did not notice. Perhaps because I do read a lot of books by English author or, perhaps, because I’ve now lived in Canada for 19 years.

If you’re into true crime, Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century is a great, well researched and well presented read.

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Paris is Burning (Documentary) by Jennie Livingston (Director)

On December 31, 2018 Hector Xtravaganza, Grandfather of the House of Xtravaganza (one of the early Latino drag families), died at the age of 60. Hector was featured in Paris is Burning and served as a consultant on the Ryan Murphy show about the New York gay ballroom scene of the 80s. Pose.

DVD Publication Date: February 22, 2012

Paris is Burning was filmed in the mid to late 1980s and chronicles the ball culture of New York City’s Black, Latino, Gay and Transgender community.

Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning follows the largely African-American Ball scene in New York City. Livingston became interested in the scene when she met a group of young gay men doing what they called “voguing” in Washington Square Park. Thinking the ball scene would make an interesting University project, the men suggested she contact the creator of the vogue moves, Will Ninja, who introduced her to the ball scene where contestants would have walk off competitions in a variety of categories. Contestants would be scored on a number of categories including realness of drag whether it be boy drag (banjee – or passing as straight), girl drag or androgyny. In exploring the ball scene, Livingston connected with many individuals and highlighted their stories.

As a parent, this documentary tore at my soul. On the one hand there’s the pageantry and over the top nature of the ball scene. A place to be accepted and celebrated for people who normally found themselves on the outside of 80’s mainstream society. A celebration of acceptance, open hearts and love. In the ball setting of everything goes live people who want to be who they are. They want love and happiness and the societal idea of normalcy. Venus Xtravaganza is a trans woman supporting herself as a call girl while dreaming that one day she’ll have the life she’s always wanted. People who love and accept her. People who see her as the woman she knows herself to be. Her longing for a life she’d never have was heart stirring. In my review of this movie I don’t wish to pontificate on gay rights but my heart broke for Venus in her dreamy desire for a life she would never have (not to give anything away). What we’re left with is a clear, unvarnished look at a woman who is hurting no one in her longing for the life of a suburban lady who lunches. Her end is heartrending and tragic and I will admit to wishing that things had worked out differently for this compelling young person.

As a longtime viewer of RuPaul’s Drag Race and follower of drag culture, watching Paris is Burning shined a light on how much the fore-bearers of the ball scene influence gay culture. The drag houses of the film still exist and thrive and the sense of community shines in the artists appearing on our screens weekly. Livingston showed the good and the bad. The nurturing “families” and the danger of daily survival. I searched wikipedia for many of the key players in the film after finishing and many of them lived on their terms and, sadly, met an early end. Hector Xtravanganza became a key player in HIV/Aids activism.

Paris is Burning is engaging, enlightening, joyful, heartbreaking and informative. It is a must see for humanity. Check it out today. I don’t know why I waited so long.

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Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness by Harold Schechter

Publication Date: March 1, 2018

Belle Gunness was a serial killer who operated between 1884 and 1908. She killed at least 14 people (including her own adopted daughter) but possibly as many as 40. Detected in 1908, she apparently died in a house fire with her remaining three adopted children and though a man went to trial for the arson and murder, not everyone was convinced.

Let me say right from the start, Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness is one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. Not a generally well known serial killer today, Belle Gunness was a Norewegian-American who operated out of La Porte, Indiana. Her victims appear to have been exclusively her fellow Norwegian immigrants. She’d advertised in the Norwegian papers located in Chicago for a handyman and then would operate a love scam quite a lot like we see today online. She’d build a rapport telling her prospect that she was a wealthy widow and he could marry her if he had enough money and they would live happily together. He would be instructed to liquidate assets and tell no one of his plans. When he arrived, he’d meet a nasty fate and anyone inquiring would be told that the person had simply moved on….often having returned to Norway. Once the crimes were discovered and Gunness was presumed dead, the public feeding frenzy for information and the spike to La Porte of macabre tourism was fascinating as was the purple prose of he media leading in some cases to wild speculation and outright fallacies.


Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness features Kindle in Motion which allows for animated graphics (which can be turned off) and the animated images really annoyed me at first. When on a page with text, it took a moment to refocus on the story. A picture of an empty room fills with trunks. We get it, Gunness killed a lot of people. Once the story started rolling in earnest, must admit, I didn’t notice the animations except when they featured slideshows of historic pictures of the excavation of the Gunness farm and that aspect was kind of cool as was seeing known pictures of the victims as they appeared in the narrative instead of having to turn to the center of the book. This was just that kind of story. There were simply a lot of people to keep track of and the visuals helped greatly.

The story of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness follows not only the crimes of Belle Gunness but also her former handyman Ray Lamphere who was accused of having killed her and her children by arson. Schechter is a consummate professional in the liner presentation of fact. For the most part, the story is chronological though thoroughly conferred. In retrospect, I’m surprised to not have seen a book about this particular serial killer before as there was simply so much information that the 336 pages left nothing out and kept rolling right up to the surprising end.

 Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness is a tough book to recommend for holiday reading. Its not light or forthy but it’s so interesting that if you have time off, it would be well spent with cocoa, a fireplace an this amazingly well written true crime read. Pick it up today. Trust me. This may be my top recommendation of the year and at $4.95 for the US Kindle copy, how can you lose?

Read an excerpt and buy Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness by Harold Schechteron

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About Harold Schechter
For more information about Harold Schechter, you can connect with his profile on Goodreads .

American Horror Story: Asylum

Aired: October 17, 2012 – January 23, 2013

Set mostly in 1964, Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is accused of killing his wife (Britne Oldford) and locked up in Briarcliff Manor, an asylum that houses the criminally insane. Court appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Oliver Threadson (Zachary Quinto) is assigned to asses Walker’s ability to stand trial. Reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) requests access to the asylum as she sees exposing the mistreatment of the patients as the making of her career. Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) denies her access so Lana sneaks in and is injured. Jude initially uses the injury and then Lana’s homosexuality to keep her locked away. Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) is using the patients to make the ultimate human beings. Dark forces are at work. In modern day in the ruins of Briarcliff will history repeat itself?

Asylum is the second show in the American Horror Story series.

 

There is a lot going on in Asylum. There are serial killers, alien abduction, demon possession, war criminals, the list goes on. The show tackles homosexuality, interracial marriage, unchecked medical practices and the abuses that occurred unchecked in asylums of the era. People treated as sub-human and disappeared easily. Each character is deeply complex and unique in their own right and few are truly evil, simply misguided in their approach to what they think is best for the world.

As would be expected from the calibre of performer to appear in a Ryan Murphy production, the acting is beyond reproach. I read a tweet not long ago that lauded Evan Peters as the Meryl Streep of the modern age and I can’t say that I disagree. He is an absolutely phenomenal artist. In Kit he is traumatized, confused and desperate. Kit is a man fighting for his life and the audience believes the urgency of his dilemma. Lily Rabe appears in this second outing as Sister Mary Eunice, a nun imbued with childlike innocence who turns evil. Frances Conroy appears briefly as an angel of death of sorts and her brief appearances are simply breathtaking. Though there are sex scenes in Asylum, they are less pronounced than in Murder House though, I must warn viewers that might be triggered, there is a pretty brutal rape scene that is in no way gratuitous.

Because of the many directions in which the stories go, some of them simply aren’t done very well. I know that there are lines throughout that will connect in the final season, perhaps the very poorly executed alien story-line that seems like an afterthought will re-emerge in Apocalypse. The backstories of the varied inmates (woman accused of killing her family, sex addicts, Anne Frank,  Pepper – a nonverbal patient who appears as a main character in the later installment Freak Show, etc…). Each character is explained and their motivations explored. Innocent and guilty melted together and forced to survive. Sister Jude rules the roost but she’s at odds with Doctor Arden believing that the experiments Briarcliff’s founder, Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), has given Arden the space to perform is against nature but she soon finds herself with a greater adversary…her past.

I expected to be deeply uncomfortable with the cruelty of the Asylum and was but was intrigued with where the story would go and was not disappointed. The tie in of the past storyline with it’s present counterpart was expected but really well done. Adam Levine and Jenna Tatum are perhaps not the strongest actors in the piece but their brief appearance certainly makes its mark. Sarah Paulson especially was a standout as a later life Lana Winters. 

To say much more would be giving away the story so if you are one of the few people who haven’t seen this series and enjoy well acted drama, check it out. Let me know what you think.

 

American Horror Story Asylum is available as a DVD, Blu-ray and on Amazon Instant Video.

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Title American Horror Story Murder House
Director Ryan Murphy (and others)
Actors Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, Zachary Quinto (and others)
Length 13 episodes
Rating NR
DVD Release October 8, 2013

Brett Enters the Square Circle by David D’Aguanno (author) and Henry Travis Carter (narrator)

Publication Date: April 12, 2018

Stacey Ashton has disappeared. While Melanie Foster thinks she may have run off with Melanie’s husband, it soon becomes clear that there’s a good chance that she was murdered. But by who? Can suave, handsome, best butt in the nation, man for the ages Brett Cornell solve the case?

Brett Enters the Golden Circle is the fifth book in the Brett Cornell series.

The author gave me a copy of this audiobook in exchange for my review.

 

The best way to start this review is with an observation. This is Book 5 so we know Brett Cornell. He is a quintessential 80s man with his curly golden locks and porn star stache. My own father liked to top the look with a woven straw cowboy hat. Very of the day.  At the start of Brett Enters the Golden Circle we’re treated to a sexual flashback that includes private “sessions” with one of his teachers. My first reaction, of course, is to vomit a bit in my mouth at the idea but Brett is of the same generation of my aforementioned father who I remember laughing with relatives of his generation about that drivers ed teacher who would give private lessons and be out a little long or about how the boys on the football team got to drive the gym teacher’s sports car after a private session with him. The attitude today is still that boys who sleep with older women have won the lottery. So what’s my point with this? The ability to gloss over Brett is partly because deep down we know he’s a good soul but also he was a man before the #metoo movement when men assumed that women really wanted a good ass slapping but really weren’t free enough to say. He considered the abuse, and lets be clear that’s what it was…as well as his other encounters with older women….as part of a sexual evolution. That he is so much a man of his time will, to be honest, put readers off. Some of us who remember the 80s and remember the Bretts we knew (Dear Lord, help us all) chainsmoking, wise-cracking, full of pomp and themselves will take it for what it is, a nuance of an already pretty flawed character.

As we embark on Brett’s fifth outing, he still thinks of himself as the golden egg the goose laid. As has been the habit of the course of the series, D’Aguanno invites us to see a little more of what makes Brett tick which, frankly, is this character’s saving grace. Brett, as usual, is the one telling the story and readers know to take most of what he says with a giant block of salt. Brett Enters the Square Circle is less a mystery and more a story of Brett. He and Ginger are on a break (which he pretends to enjoy as it opens up his sexual horizons). He runs across bastards more unscrupulous than himself, women who are sometimes willing and sometimes not to put up with his classic Brettisms. He, as the title implies, winds up in a square circle. This is where narrator Travis Henry Carter really comes into his own. From the start this narrator has been a stroke of brilliance for the series. His voice embodies the bald face bravado that has become Brett’s brand.

While Brett may be Melanie Foster’s “dream come true,” his story isn’t something you would want to play during the daily school commute. D’Aguanno’s language is bold and brash but refreshing in its inhibition. Travis Henry Carter enhances what has become a pretty fluid voice gifted to Brett by his author. His quick patter and easy sounding shifts between Brett and his wise-cracking adversaries (both male and female) allow the reader to become fully engaged. Brett Enters the Square Circle is fast paced and entertaining. Come for the mystery, which is wrapped up pretty neatly, but stay to get to know Brett better. A truly good listen.

 

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Title Brett Enters the Square Circle
Author David D’Aguanno
Narration  Travis Henry Carter
Length 8 hours and 32 minutes
Released April 12, 2018

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About David D’Aguanno
For more information about David D’Aguanno visit his website. You can connect with him on GoodreadsFacebook and Twitter @DaveDAguanno.

 

 

Eubeltic Descent by Nadine Keels

Publication Date: August 22, 2018

Abigaia Grena has only known a life of crime. A talented thief, she has come to hate what she’s become. She dreams of returning to her ancestral home but her intended isn’t interested in making the trip across the ocean. What will she do when the Euebeltic Realm needs her?

The author, Nadine Keels, gave me a copy of Eubeltic Descent in exchange for my review.

We learn the most important thing about Abigaia in the first few sentences; she rationalizes morality. She’s a thief but vendors anticipate thievery and make allowances so Abigaia suggests that it’s something of a social contract. At her core, she’s a deeply principled person caught in a situation she’s unable to control but she can dream and, perhaps; find the strength to make dreams reality. She’s a master of distraction and analytical thinking in her craft and uses that not only to misdirect vendors and readers. She’s led a rough life having lost her mother young and while her father was physically there for a while and impressed upon her the importance of her heritage, she’s terrified of him. Abigaia, now living with her aunt, has turned to something of a pack of thieves. Her aunt knows she can’t afford the things she brings from market but asks no questions. Keels impresses on us that these are desperately poor people living on the edge and hence, the world to which Abi’s ancestors immigrated isn’t quite the bright land of opportunity it once was and as she learns about her ancestors, her hope grows.

There’s a metaphor of modern life in Eubeltic Descent. The class system and shattered lives and the proud ancestry that one would hope is re-found. Keel’s writing style is an intelligent mix of a classic world and a carefully constructed progressive plot that shows massive growth in its main character that is in keeping with the girl we meet in the first few chapters. Abi starts as a little girl sure she’s too old for the games and matures into a strong and capable woman. Keel’s skill with the language is visceral. We see Abi’s hair fall to act as a disguise, we see Tarek’s raking smile, we stand in the kitchen with Abi’s aunt as she makes apple tarts. Its hard to go into the story without revealing massive spoilers but the lines of the plot come together smoothly taking readers on a journey to the unexpected.

As fantasy novels go, Eubelic Descent is a good one. It flows well and is a fast read. If you like character driven fantasy, be sure to pick this one up today.

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About Nadine Keels
For more information about Nadine Keels, visit her blog. You can connect with her on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter @nadinekeels.