When Fiction Becomes Reality

If you’re a loyal (or even an occasional) reader, you know that I ❤ New Orleans with a capital ❤ . I love the history, the food, the people, the music… There is always something going on in NOLA, and if you’re there and are bored, it’s your own fault. My darling husband and I just returned from NOLA, where we spent several days doing some touristy stuff (no matter how many times you visit, the nighttime ghost tours of the French Quarter are always a must), and a lot of wandering around on our own.

There’s no real way to adequately describe the personality of a city like New Orleans. It’s schizophrenic in the best possible way.  Every street has its own style, its own flair, its own history, and its own look. This is why you can walk a mere block or two and have it seem like you’ve stepped into another world.  The Vieux Carre is as different from the Garden District as the sun is from the moon.

Though there are other places I have visited that I enjoyed, none of them have captured my soul quite like NOLA has.  Because I thrive on stories – I read them, I write them, I tell them.  And NOLA has endless stories.  Some are horrid and bloody (Madame Delphine LaLaurie, I’m lookin’ at you right now), some are outlandish and nigh unbelievable (the ghost of a pirate guarding Jean Laffite’s treasure haunts Laffite’s Blacksmith Shop, a local bar), and some are downright sad (a boarding school burned, killing several children who couldn’t escape). But ALL of them, no matter the subject, are interesting.

I stumbled across Alys Arden’s book The Casquette Girls purely by accident – one of those “if you liked this, then try that” types of things. I read the blurb, and saw that it was set in New Orleans (relatively) present-day, and that it somehow involved vampires.  This presented a conundrum. With the exception of one or two specific titles, I am not a fan of vampire books. At all. However, I am a fan of New Orleans. So the fact that this book was set in the Big Easy drew it out of the “nope” category into the “I’ll give it a try” category. I’m so glad I did, because, Reader, I am in total love with this book. Arden takes several prominent (and some obscure) urban legends from New Orleans history and, along with some contemporary events, weaves them into a beautiful tale of mystery, magic, and adventure.

First of all, the setting is perfectly presented. It conveys the colorful personality of New Orleans – in all its aspects – very well. It embraces the diversity, the culture, the humanity of the city and its residents unapologetically – even proudly. Additionally, it is set in the days following “the Storm”, which is obviously Hurricane Katrina, but is never specifically named as such. So readers get to experience the devastation, the loss, the frustration of the situation right along with the characters.

And let’s talk about those characters for a minute… The story revolves around Adele – born and raised New Orleansian, half-American/half-French, and telekinetic; Desiree – New Orleans native, mayor’s daughter, and hereditary voodoo witch; and Isaac – high school dropout, relief worker, and animagus. I liked how each of the characters is in a different stage of their supernatural journey: Adele learns of her abilities at the beginning of the book, Isaac knows what he is but is still coming to terms with it, and Desiree has known of her gifts from birth and has been practicing magic her whole life. The characters are dynamic, individual, and interesting all, in their own rights.

The plot of this book kept me rapt, and I literally lost sleep over it (because I stayed up late reading). It expertly intertwines a past storyline with a present storyline and make me care equally about both. The past bleeds forward into the present, and decisions made by characters in the past affect the fate of characters in the future. I liked the limited POV, and that I learned things as the characters learned them; I felt a sense of profound pleasure when I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

I must confess, though, that I did NOT see the plot twist coming, so that was a nice surprise.

I also liked that though this book had vampires, it wasn’t wholly about vampires. Yes, they played a role and essentially acted as a catalyst for the events, but they weren’t the main focus of the story. Which was totally fine by me.

On a sidenote: I read this book before my husband and I went on our latest trip to NOLA, and it was a blast to be able to try to find all the different places highlighted in the book on the actual streets of the French Quarter.  Alys Arden grew up in NOLA, and as an expert on the area, adds in places that only locals (or someone who is a frequent visitor) know about.  I took pictures of some of them.

blog tearoom
Bottom of the Cup Tea Room
blog count
St. Germain House
blog convent
Old Ursuline Convent

Overall, I found this book to be fun and thoughtful and clever, and I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Romeo Catchers.

A Bittersweet Farewell

As a self-proclaimed loner/introvert, I am one of those people who spends a lot of time alone.  This has always been the way of things, and it means that I’ve always enjoyed solitary activities – reading, writing, wandering.  I am also one of those completely insane people who love school, and actively look for new things to learn.  I am a #historybuff, and have always had a fascination with all things ancient in general, and Egyptian in particular. Independently of any assignments or school requirements, I learned about the history of Egypt, its deities, and its mythology.  Yes, nerd.

Eye_of_Horus

Years (and years and years ago), one of my reading buddies (one of the rare friends I’ve known since childhood, and retained into adulthood) introduced me to the Amelia Peabody mysteries, penned by Elizabeth Peters (a nom de plume for Barbara Mertz).  I was in my late teens, and immediately fell in love with the clever, feisty Englishwoman and her larger-than-life husband, Emerson.  Their adventures were ones I reveled in – chasing criminals across the desert and through famous ruins, discovering lost treasures, championing equality for all – and I looked forward to each new installment of the series with excitement.

peabody

One of the things I really liked about the series was the characters.  I appreciated how independent and forward-thinking Amelia Peabody was, and how she acted as if equality for all people – regardless of sex, race, or upbringing – was a given, rather than a right.  She was confident, she was brave, and she did not let others push her around.  And above all, she was clever, and used her intelligence to her advantage to get her out of all sorts of trouble.  Emerson, likewise, was written as an evolved character.  In a time period where men were intimidated by women who exhibited intelligence, courage, and autonomy, Emerson reveled in the fact that his lady love possessed all these qualities – and more.  He did not try to stifle her, he did not try to protect her; rather, he looked to her as an equal.  Additionally, he is awesome even on his own.  He’s brilliant, brave, determined, and just the kind of man others respect respect because he deserves it, not because he demands it.  Peabody and Emerson (and their son Ramses – but that’s another post), are among – and even at the top of my list – my all-time favorite literary characters.

peabody Emerson

Alas, the era of Victorian gentlewoman Amelia Peabody Emerson is, indeed, over. Back in 2013, when I heard Barbara Mertz had passed away, I was profoundly saddened.  There would be no more Peabody/Emerson adventures, and I would miss them deeply.  So, in 2016, I was ecstatic to hear that Joan Hess would be producing one final volume, called The Painted Queen, based on Barbara Mertz’ planned plot and notes – a mystery surrounding the 1912 discovery of the famed bust of Nefertiti. And even though I knew it couldn’t be *exactly* the same as a Peters novel, at least it would have my beloved characters.

It goes against everything inside of me to give a negative review of this book. And to tell the truth, I didn’t dislike it. If it were a standalone title, and I didn’t have the rest of the Peabody canon to consider, I would think it a wonderfully fun adventure full of colorful characters. But it’s not a standalone. And though I think Hess did an admirable job of taking up Mertz’ mantle, something that had to have been infinitely difficult, I do think she fell a bit short of the mark.

Aside from the obvious continuity errors (of which there are many), something just seems a little off about the novel. It’s not the story – that was well done. The mystery is mysterious, the danger is dangerous, and the villain is villainous. Rather, it’s the characters themselves that I find problematic. Having read nineteen other entries in this series – all multiple times – I have gotten to know these characters quite well. And I find that, as written in The Painted Queen, they are all slightly off-center. Let’s look at them:
Amelia Peabody has always had an appreciation for whiskey and soda, and for adhering to mealtimes in an effort to retain a modicum of “civilization” in an “uncivilized” environment, but in this book, she is overly preoccupied with alcohol and with all the food. I mean, squirreling sandwiches away in her pockets and mentioning food every other page? If she had eaten so much through the entire series, she would have had to have a new working outfit made every season, and have her belt of tools resized to accommodate her expanding girth. This is not the same character I included in my Top 10 Coolest Book Characters post here.
Emerson has always been one of my favorite characters. In fact, I included him in one of my blog posts about my Top 10 Sigh-Worthy Heroes here, at my old blog home. I have a special appreciation for Emerson, because he very much reminds me of my own husband – large and imposing and blustery with a vocabulary quick to include expletives, but with a heart of gold. And I found the Emerson in this book to be a diminished caricature of Mertz’ Emerson. His suddenly-developed penchant for publicly professing his undying love and inability to live without Peabody was laughable. Everything he did was exaggerated, almost to the point of buffoonery, and it was a sad treatment of this most illustrious character.
Ramses I found to be the closest representation of the original. He is still imperious and arrogant, and his mind is still brilliant, if a little devious.
Nefret is a little trickier to discuss, because her changedness could be attributed to her harrowing (though self-afflicted) experiences reported in The Falcon at the Portal. She is demure, constantly apologizing, and annoyingly ladylike. This is not the Nefret I know and love. Yes, she made mistakes; no, she doesn’t need to change her entire personality to make up for them.
And, last but not least, there’s David, who seems to be around just for comic relief, and to make Ramses look smarter (as if that’s necessary). This annoyed me. I always admired the character of David, and considered him an integral part of the Peabody-Emerson family, as he was intelligent, yet brought a different perspective to the group. That is completely missing from this story.

So, even though it was lovely to return to Egypt for one last season with the Peabody-Emersons, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Good bye, Peabody.  You will be greatly missed.