Maestra by L. S. Hilton

Maestra by L. S. Hilton (Putnam, 2016) 309 pages

M Hilton

I read this novel because I know L. S. Hilton as Lisa Hilton, non-fiction author who wrote books about Queen Elizabeth and other Medieval queens. I almost bought one, but didn’t, picking up a history of the Plantagenet dynasty instead. So why is Lisa Hilton, historian, now L. S. Hilton, “erotic” novelist? Probably for the same reason that Harry Turtledove, Byzantine historian (I have his translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes) became the award-winning novelist of alternate histories of WW II: because that’s where the money and fame are. At least Harry kept his name and personal history, while Hilton seems intent to disown any of that intellectual person she once was.

Why? Well, Turtledove’s former life was a good platform for his historical novels, although I wonder how much a deep knowledge of Byzantium had to do with understanding how the history of modern Europe might have played out if a few things had changed. But if what you are writing, as the New York Post said (proudly displayed on the Amazon page) is an “erotic novel [that] makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible”…well, you might want to keep those two careers separate. (I doubt anyone at the Post is familiar with how salacious the Bible actually is…you hear me, Lot?)

Also, if you look at the photo of Hilton on the end flap, that woman looks much more like the jet-setting serial killer in the novel than a history geek (although she is almost 42, the image on the book reveals that she is very well preserved). And when it comes to loving sex, no one can doubt that Hilton began laying the groundwork for an eventual titillating best-seller almost 10 years ago: see her article in the Guardian from 2007.

By the way, the title Maestra comes from the feminine form of “maestro,” meaning a teacher or someone of consummate skill, usually in the field of music. In Italian, oddly, the term maestro is used for both male and female.

Now, about the book itself, which is the first of a promised trilogy. I found the idea of a psychopath who kills and screws her way to fame and fortune intriguing, not in the least because every other female (and many of the males) in the book is either a vapid moron or fodder for the maestra to manipulate and conquer. But I found the sex a bit forced, if done with athletic vigor and sometimes drug-induced enthusiasm. To me it was more a curiosity than erotic (do people really do that? I guess so…but no thanks…maybe I’ll just wait outside).

The narrator, Judith Rashleigh, starts out as an assistant at a London art house, the kind that acquires art at an estate sale, cleans it up and appraises it, and then auctions it off so that international drug dealers can launder their money…I mean, so that discriminating rich people can enjoy fine artwork. But because Judy can’t get enough sex, she’s also a hostess at an upscale champagne bar, the ones where the good stuff costs 3000 pounds…but who cares, because the bank I work for is paying my business expenses, right?

Judy is apparently the only person who wants to better herself (she is tired of working for people who don’t have her Oxford education – as Hilton does – but who come from better families). Judy tries to be good until she stumbles onto a plot to sell a “school of” painting as the real deal (a Stubbs). She decides to celebrate her freedom by talking a client into taking her and a friend to the French Riviera, where the girls manage to administer an overdose to their sugar daddy. This event somehow inspires Judy to become a serial killer and pass herself off as one of the vacuous rich that flit on yachts between France and Italy and Spain as the whim strikes them.

Now, I surely applaud people who want to better themselves and become famous novelists after a series low-paying non-fiction books (ahem). But of course you can succeed by killing everyone and anyone who stands in your way. Especially if every coincidence and messy step with the cops and the mob happens to break your way. The trick is to do it while still playing by the rules. You can always cut the Gordian Knot, sure, but everybody with Alexander the Great could have done that.

This is the psychological thriller equivalent of the zombies who, when they chase others, run like the wind, but when they chase the heroes, stagger with leaden feet and stumbling gait. One or two coincidences and betrayals I could take, but by the third or fourth occasion of just-in-time escapes or great fortune, I started shaking my head and longing for a good evaluation of Queen Elizabeth among the rulers or her day.

No matter who old Judy shoots, stabs, poisons, or strangles, she is always one step or more ahead of those corrupt authorities who are, after all, as evil in their own way as our dear maestra. Probably more so, don’t you think? Because they’re supposed to be good guys, a claim Judy never makes for herself.

I did come away with an enriched vocabulary and a better sense of modern female fashion and style. If I ever need to pass myself off as a hooker in downtown London or an ingénue on the Riviera, I’ll know just how to dress for the lap dance or the dinner party on the big boat (see pages 7-8, 20, 55-56, 68, 77, 96, 144, 124, 144, 161, 244, 264, 279, etc).

Now, a lot of the words used in the book I knew, but seldom encounter in my reading (like the colonic on p.33). Many you can figure out from context (like the gun with the silencer she keeps in her Parisian escritoire on p.284). But I don’t often scramble for the dictionary like I did here (a lot of them are special food/clothes words, but there will be a test): angostura (p.9), peruke (p.26), syllabub (p.41), “ruched her pashmina” (p.45), squiz (p.53), monoï oil (p.74), etiolated (p. 79, but 10 points off for repeating this odd word for “feeble” on p. 270), passarelle (p. 104), kurta (p.124), foulard (p.144), snaffle ([.167), raclette (p.201), and “perse” skin and “kir framboise” (both on p. 215).

One odd oversight, although it is absolutely essential to the plot: the Eden Roc in Antibes on the Riviera (NOT the one in Miami), once noted for taking only cash, now takes finer credit cards. (How do I know? My father might have been a coal miner, but I am not a peasant…)

Note to self: If I can arrange for an illustrated edition of this book with a hot blond (Hilton?) dressed up in all the outfits in the book, especially if I can show the monoï oil on her nether regions, I’ll be a multi-millionaire.

But I’ll probably pass on the next two books. I just could not think of old Judy as someone I wanted to succeed. Actually, I wanted someone she trusted to gut her like a fish, preferably during sex while wearing only her pashmina. Maybe that’s how she ends up…one can only hope.

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker

Full Measure by T. Jefferson Parker (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) 280 pages

FM Parker

For the past few weeks, I’ve written about groups dominated not about concerns for government and laws, but about the reaction of their peers and the pressure of the tribe (and I use that term loosely). For example, in The Wandering Falcon, the people are confused by a need to have papers like birth certificates to cross what amount to arbitrary nation borders and in Smile as they Bow, the gay community serves the spirits (nats) by “channeling” the essences of these respected gods to escape official condemnation for their lifestyle. In both cases, the tribe clings together for protection, and individuals break tribal customs at their own risk.

Surely we don’t have tribes in modern America, right? I thought so to, but recently several things converged to make Parker’s book even more relevant than I thought when I read it. First I met Parker at ASU’s annual Desert Night Rising Stars writing conference and he spoke about how his home’s proximity to Camp Pendleton and Marines returning from the Middle East influenced this book. Then this week I went to Changing Hands book store in Phoenix to meet Doug Bradley and hear him speak on his book about how music bound together Vietnam veterans both “in country” during the war and after (the book is We Gotta Get out of This Place). And to top it off, I watched Bradley Cooper in the movie American Sniper again on HBO.

If American military veterans do not constitute a “tribe” as binding as the one who wander the Middle East or haunt the temples of Myanmar, then I don’t know what would be. I can think of others too: police officers (I spent most of my adult life living with two police officers and the chief of police of my town on three of the four sides me), fire fighters, and even motorcycle gangs. They have their own rules, their own talk, their own concerns, and yet they live among us quietly until something happens that draws attention to their otherness.

Which brings me to Full Measure. When speaking about this book, Parker mentioned how the returning veterans he spoke to did not care to be addressed as “heroes” or be constantly thanked for their service. To them, they were doing a dangerous and dirty job and trying their best to keep body and soul together during their tours. They weren’t drafted like many in Viet Nam were: they volunteered and had at least some idea of the risks they would be taking. So it’s no surprise that Full Measure opens with Patrick Norris returning home to his family’s avocado ranch in Fallbrook, north of San Diego, and feeling uncomfortable with people who fawn over him, even his brother Ted (page 4). He’s just glad to see his mom and dad again (page 16).

But all is not well at home. A recent wild fire, which might have been set on purpose, has destroyed acres of countryside and many of the Norris avocado trees. If they cannot be saved and provide a cash crop, Pat’s father will have to sell off the land at a fraction of its worth to developers who plan to build houses on the property. Patrick’s home town has changed as well, and now the poorer families, some foreign and others from Mexico, live and work side-by-side with the older (white) population. There is evidence of an active drug market and street gangs. Many of the newcomers don’t own cars, and a young Hispanic boy has been killed by an unknown hit-and-run driver. He tried crossing between the legally established crosswalks at traffic lights set a mile apart (it’s like that where I live in Arizona too).

The mayor holds a town meeting to determine if a crosswalk with solar-powered caution lights should be placed midway between the lights (page 26). The old-timers rail against the expense because the Great Recession has hit the town hard and unemployment is high. They complain even though the state will help pay and enough local money is available. The people vote the measure down, much to the dismay of young mothers trying to dash across the busy street with a baby carriage and two youngsters in tow. But this delights one element of the town: the “white power” advocates who insist on wearing guns wherever they go and want to unseat the current mayor (page 24). As much as Patrick misses the rush of combat (page 28), he doesn’t miss having to carry a gun wherever he goes and worry about people shooting at him on the streets of his home town.

In other words, Patrick Norris’ home town is facing exactly the same problems a lot of towns and cities in this country are facing. The government is losing its grip and the tribes are restless.

As if all this wasn’t enough, the Norris family is increasingly concerned about Patrick’s brother Ted. Ted suffers from painfully flat feet and has the attention span of a gnat. He sits in the old bunkhouse and plays video games all night. When dad has to press Ted into service to try and save the less savagely burned of the trees, Ted immediately screws up and Marine vet brother Patrick has to bail poor Ted out (page 91). Ted drives a cab to help out, but is increasingly drawn to the whole white-power gun-toting crowd when he is mugged by a Hispanic gang-banger. Yet even when Ted tries to take his revenge with the help of his new friends, the result is no better than anything else Ted does.

Patrick, as sympathetic as he is to Ted’s woes, has problems of his own. He tries to connect with a local girl named Iris, and things go well until his PTSD buddies show up at a party at Iris’ place and promptly start a fight that trashes the place. It costs Patrick every penny he has to make things right, but Iris is understandably reluctant to get drawn into Patrick’s orbit.

The end has a twist you won’t see coming, I promise. But not everything gets sorted out with the usual hearts and flowers that books like this sometimes try to peddle. Still, in the end, there is hope.

Let me close my “tribal sequence” with a few last thoughts on this subject. Ted’s problem, as I see it, is that he is shut out of all tribes. The groups that he desperately wants and needs to join are closed to him: war veterans (feet), gentleman ranchers (no head for agriculture), respectable guy with a nice girl (the whole video game obsession, and every girl Ted comes across eventually spurns him as a stalker or someone who is already planning on how many kids they will have). Even the outsiders, the gun guys and the radicals, reject Ted as a hopeless dweeb who can’t even bash someone with a baseball bat in the dark without help. And guns? He’ll probably shoot his foot off sooner or later…

All this rejection drives Ted to increasingly extreme actions which threaten to overwhelm the ability of his brother and parents to protect him. Definitely worth a read, I have to say.

American Blood by Ben Sanders

American Blood by Ben Sanders (Minotaur Books, 2015) 339 pages

AB Sanders

I bought this book because I thought it would be interesting the read a thriller/crime book written by a New Zealander about events in New Mexico, specifically Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I did wonder why a writer from New Zealand would think that New Mexico is filled with raging drug dealers and gangs who go around terrorizing everyone and murdering and torturing as they liked. Then I realized the answer: Breaking Bad. People probably think that show is some kind of documentary.

My own memories of central New Mexico are different. My memories of Santa Fe involve Georgia O’Keefe landscapes and colorful bluffs. My impressions of Albuquerque are of the pastel blues and reds of the highways (yes, the highways) and sharing an elevator and breakfast with Britney Spears at the Doubletree hotel downtown, after I caught her show at the big mall across town (now, there’s a story…she was really small and talkedreallyfast, like that).

I didn’t spend a lot of time in either place looking for drugs or bad guys, but I’m sure the area is a lot less violent than Sander’s book makes it out to be. The blurb mentions the book and movie No Country for Old Men, but the country in this book has no old men at all: I doubt anyone of the crooks who bother people or the cops who chase them could possibly survive long enough to reach old age.

That’s not to say that Sanders is not a good writer, or that the book is unbelievable. The book moves right along, and you can blast through it. Many scenes are dialog-heavy, and the chapters are only a few thousand words long. There are three main point-of-view characters: the hero, a local narcotics police woman, and one of the main bad guys. The hero is Marshall, an ex-Special Forces and New York cop who ends up in witness protection in Santa Fe. The book blurb says he is “racked with guilt” and “seeking atonement” but I didn’t see any of that in the book itself. I think old Marshall is just the kind of action junkie that drives books like this forward. It could probably be a series (the story ends with that possibility) with Marshall Grade as Jack Reacher, but no human could survive the risky business that Marshall indulges in day after day. (In fairness, the action takes place over a bit more than 48 hours, so maybe this mayhem only happens occasionally.)

The local narc is a woman named Lauren Shore who drinks a lot because she lost her son Liam when he chased some burglars from the house and they shot him (page 17 and 270). Welcome to vigilante America, the book seems to say: this is the greatest country in the world, but you aren’t safe in your own home unless you’re packing heat at all times.

The third POV character is Rojas. He’s in it only for the money, and betrays his boss when the boss (Leon) assassinates a wounded comrade instead of risking taking him to the hospital. Then they chop several people up in the basement and dissolve them in acid. This is instead of, you know, putting them in the secret room with Alyce Ray and rest of the women they have captured because they might be witnesses, or just because they liked the way they looked (seriously: that’s all on page 329). But I had a hard time swallowing Rojas’s sudden attack of squeamishness.

The three main characters are joined now and then by a federal marshal who is Marshall’s witness protection contact and an assassin from New York who is sent out to see if Marshall might be around. The fed’s main role seem to be to help the heroes when it would be absolutely impossible to believe that one man (or woman) could take out four or five really bad folks. It’s fun, but often resorts to the old James Bond problem: the good guys always kill the bad guys, but the bad guys always tie the good guys up because they don’t want blood on the carpet or whatever. 🙂

The New York bad guy is “the Dallas Man” who is sent to wipe out a rival gang and find Marshall for the NY mob, if he’s around. He is, and this cold-blooded killer has a young daughter who he calls right after a hit. At first I found this touch repulsive, and then I kind of liked that this reptilian killer could have any emotions at all.

What happened in NY that sent Marshall out to New Mexico for protection? He went undercover as a fake crooked cop and was forced to either blow his cover or ignore a great injustice (to reveal more would be a major spoiler). The story is told in chapter-section flashbacks that occur at an increasing pace as the book goes on. I almost missed them because the “2010” header to flag flashbacks is only regular text that has been bolded. They are on pages 74, 149, 176, 214, 239, 258, and 273. I liked that device, and writers can learn a lot about pacing and handling back story from Sanders.

Sanders writes well too. I flagged some really nice passages: “One of those mornings when she woke and it was nearly twelve. Still dressed and laid diagonally on tangled sheets, her feet at the pillow and a thin stripe of sunlight across the darkened room.” And this: “She went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror, finger-combed her hair. She put an inch of water in the glass that stood at the basin and knocked it back like a shot.” Both of these are on page 60, and haven’t we all had a morning or two like that?

The biggest issue I had with the book was the reason that Marshall risks his life over and over to help a missing local girl named Alyce Ray. Alyce’s photo reminds him of someone in New York (a lover) the book reminds us over and over, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to blaze a path of destruction up and down I-25. Speaking of I-25, I checked most of the geographical clues about New York and New Mexico and they show that, if Sanders has never been to either place, the Internet can make you an expert on a lot of things.

But I didn’t get the whole thing about Marshall and Stella beer (page 4 and 309). I know it’s big in New Zealand, but I can’t recall ever seeing anyone sipping one in a dive bar anywhere. If you want someone not to know where you come from by the beer you drink (the supposed Stella reason), get a Bud Light.

Also, please don’t have a character named Marshall and other characters who are New Mexico Marshals. My eye ground to halt every time I saw that in print: is that one “l” or two? Marshall or the Marshal?

Bottom line, if you want to find new ways to kill (cutlery—forks and spoons—play a major role on pages 80 and 201) or find out addresses with social engineering (page 238), all wrapped in a well-written package, this is the book for you.