The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk

The Wolves of St. Peter's by Gina Buonaguro & Janice KirkBook Review
Title: The Wolves of St. Peter’s
Authors:  Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk
Publisher: HarperCollins
Released: April 23, 2013
Pages: 288
ISBN-10: 1443417459
ISBN-13: 978-1443417457
Stars:  4.0

In The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Toronto’s Gina Buonaguro and Kingston, Ontario’s Janice Kirk, young Francesco Angeli is the unenthusiastic houseboy/assistant of the irritable, arrogant and eccentric Michelangelo (he keeps a three-legged chicken as a pet!) who is busy at work on his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although educated and a lawyer by trade, Francesco’s libido has got him into trouble. After becoming involved with Juliet, the wife of his employer, Guido del Mare, his father sends him from Florence to Rome to work for Michelangelo.

Francesco often shirks his responsibilities to either bed the married gypsy girl Susanna who lives next door, or to hang out with his friend Raphael and the artists who gather socially at the home of Imperia, a madam who operates a brothel near the Vatican while Pope Julius II ignores its activities.

One rainy morning, Francesco witnesses a golden-haired woman’s body being pulled from the Tiber River and is shocked when he recognizes her as being one of Imperia’s prostitutes, Calendula, (who reminds him of his illicit lover and who had been flaunting an expensive ring given to her by an unknown paramour) or so he believes. And if her death wasn’t enough of a mystery, Francesco is even more horrified when other people he knows turn up dead as well.

In the meantime, the rising waters of the Tiber are flooding city streets and turning the citizens of Rome – who are terrified by the possibility of a plague – into refugees and the Coliseum into an emergency shelter.  Hungry wolves descend from the hills at night to “stalk the city like ghosts,” but these wolves are really just a metaphor for the true wolves of the city that are far more dangerous than their canine counterparts. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but are inside ravenous wolves.”

As Francesco follows the deepening mystery from the backstreets to the pope’s inner sanctum, he begins to realize that danger and corruption may lurk behind the most beautiful of facades.

The cast of lively characters include not only Michelangelo and Raphael, but also Marcus, Calendula’s artist lover; a rich shipping merchant and admirer of Calendula’s referred to as The Turk; Guido del Mare’s brutish bodyguard Pollo Grosso “Big Chicken”; the Pope’s suspicious right hand men Cardinal Asino and Paride di Grassi; and Dante, a fine wood-carver who with every full moon undergoes a transformation and believes himself to have changed form, this time into a bat.

I loved The Sidewalk Artist by Buonaguro & Kirk and read it in 2011 which is the reason I said yes to reviewing The Wolves of St. Peter’s.  I understand that this book is the first of a planned trilogy.  The authors are currently working on the second installment which is set in Venice during the carnival season of 1510 and also stars Francesco Angeli as its protagonist.  I also discovered in an article written about the book and its authors by Wayne Grady of the Kingston Whig-Standard on April 18, 2013 that Gina and Janice discovered, “From their reading of the contemporary historian Benevenuto Cillini, they gained a sense of the casual nature of violence in Renaissance Italy — “Everyone carried a dagger, and thought nothing of using it.” As a result, 16th century Rome emerges as a dark, dangerous and curiously ironic place. Its plot was informed by their discovery that painters of the images of the Madonna and Child found in nearly every Roman household often used prostitutes for their models.”

What strikes me most about Buonaguro & Kirk’s writing is the detail with which they sculpt their superior prose. The amount of research they undertake for their stories is obvious, the settings are captivating and their characters are quirky, interesting and complex at the same time while remaining totally accessible to the reader. They allow the characters to describe their point of view and I loved the characters of Michelangelo and Raphael who were so different but who would each go on to become two of the most famous, celebrated artists in history. Francesco’s scenes with Michelangelo and the three-legged chicken were particularly entertaining.

The romantic and somewhat gothic setting of corrupt, Renaissance Rome in 1508 sets the tone for this captivating murder mystery and the writers’ inclusion of humour at key points in the story perfectly balances the dour atmosphere in which the main characters find themselves. I must say that I didn’t solve the mystery myself until it was revealed near the end of the book. This is an immensely satisfying read for fans of historical fiction or Renaissance Italy and the artists of its time that would translate delightfully into a stunning feature film.

Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk, who now have a new Facebook page, will be signing copies of The Wolves of St. Peter’s at Chapters Kingston on Saturday, September 28th from 12-3 pm while they’re in town for Kingston WritersFest so don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to meet two of Canada’s finest writers.

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Book Review
Title: Three Graves Full
Author: Jamie Mason
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: February 12, 2013
Pages: 320
ISBN-10: 1451685033
ISBN-13: 978-1451685039
Stars: 4.0


“There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”  This is the first line of North Carolina author Jamie Mason’s debut novel, Three Graves Full.  The first chapter is so compelling that you can’t help but keep reading this delightfully macabre tale, laced with black humour and tied up with suspense.

Every event is boxed in by a set of facts; the truth as it were.  There’s the what and the when of a deed; there’s where it happened and how it was done.  But it’s at the why that the liar’s margin begins.  It’s from this border that we launch the justifications for everything we do, and for all that we allow to be done to us.  Only our distance from the hard truth and the direction of our push – toward or away from it – is the measure of our virtue.

The protagonist, Jason Getty, is a meek and insecure widower living alone in his little house on Old Green Valley Road in suburban Stillwater, MI.  Well, he’s not entirely alone…as those who live with a deep, dark secret know.  He’s a murderer.  But like Dexter, he’s a killer that we can empathize with as we begin to understand the circumstances surrounding the fateful night that has left his conscience in agony seventeen months later.  He doesn’t eat and doesn’t sleep, but somnambulates through his boring life as an office clerk, rationalizing that “no worry has ever been invented that the mind cannot bully down into mere background noise.”

Little by little Jason finds himself relaxing and able to think about normal things.  Worried about what his neighbours will think of his unkempt property, he hires a landscaping crew to clean it up.  However, on the second day of the job they discover two graves in his backyard that Jason didn’t dig.  Although terrified, he’s forced to call the police to deal with the grisly discovery, all the while praying that they don’t find the third grave.

Next, we meet Leah Tamblin, the grieving girlfriend of the missing young man (Reid) found buried in Jason’s backyard, whom as it turns out, was cheating on her with the married woman (Katielynn Montgomery) found buried beside him.  It seems that Boyd Montgomery, a hardened redneck who named his dogs after The Beatles, didn’t take kindly to discovering that his wife was screwing another man, and from this point on, in a horrifying comedy of errors, action ensues as the plot thickens.

Detectives Tim Bayard and Ford Watts (who I envisioned as actor David Morse), accompanied by his devoted and very intelligent dog Tessa, round out the main cast of characters. After all, someone has to solve this mystery!  I loved that Mason made Tessa a main character and gave her a voice (frequently written from a first person/canine viewpoint) that this dog owner could easily identify with.  Chocked full of hilarious one-liners and unusually well-written and fully realized characters, Three Graves Full will make an excellent screenplay that’ll be a joy to cast, and with just the right cool soundtrack, could end up being a celluloid cult classic.

Mason’s narrative is fast-paced, sharp and scathingly witty.  Her innovative story takes us on a ride not unlike the one we experience when watching a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Quentin Tarantino or Coen brothers’ film.  Her development of Jason’s internal conflict and the inevitability of his having to face the consequences of his actions is superb. You’ll laugh and squirm at the same time as you viscerally experience the unhinging of his sanity.

Simon & Schuster were wise to buy her manuscript as Jamie Mason’s clever, unique voice and piercing prose is so much better than the average pulp fiction.  When this book is released on February 12, 2013, I urge you to buy it.

Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen

Book Review
Title: Whistling in the Dark
Author:  Lesley Kagen
Publisher: New American Library
Released: January 1, 2012
Pages: 336
ISBN-10: 0451221230
ISBN-13: 978-0451221230
Stars:  4.0

It’s the summer of 1959 and ten-year-old Sally O’Malley and her sister Troo are on summer vacation.  Their daddy recently died in a car crash and their mother quickly remarried a nasty piece of work named Hall, a shoe salesman who prefers the bottle to being a husband or surrogate father.

With the bad luck Mother was having with her husbands, Troo and me figured that one of the reasons she had married Hall so fast after Daddy died was because he didn’t look like he’d decease anytime soon, with his muscles and wavy Swedish hair and that tattoo on the top part of his arm that said MOTHER.  Nell said that tattoo must have impressed the hell right out of Helen.  And maybe it had right after Daddy died.  But now Mother was stuck with Hall because if you were a Catholic you couldn’t get a divorce unless you wanted to go straight to hell and burn for all eternity.  If you were a Catholic, Granny said, the only thing you could do if you didn’t want to be married anymore was to pray really hard for a certain shoe-selling louse to get run over by a bus on his way to work.

When their mother Helen falls ill with a mysterious staph infection and ends up in hospital for a prolonged stay, the O’Malley sisters are left in the not so secure care of Hall and their older half-sister Nell, who is so busy with her boyfriend Eddie that she can’t seem to get any food on the table for her little sisters, except for maybe some tuna noodle casserole, but she burns it when she does.  So Sally and Troo are on the loose in their neighbourhood where they know exactly whose house to show up at during dinner time and where they’re busy preparing themselves for the annual 4th of July celebrations.  However, what’s truly disturbing them is that there’s a murderer and molester of little girls at large on Vliet Street during this summer, the summer when everyone started locking their doors.

Junie Piaskowski and Sara Heinemann have been found dead, almost a year apart, with their small bodies molested and strangled, and Sally is convinced that she’s next.  She’s particularly suspicious of Officer Dave Rasmussen, who all the adults around her insist is a good egg, but she’s sure that he’s the killer.  When Sally eventually finds out the truth about Rasmussen, it changes her life forever.

Sally made a promise to her daddy before he died and swore that she would look after her sister Troo, whose real name is Margaret and nicknamed Trooper because she always behaves like one.  Sally admires her sister because she’s fearless, funny, popular, and everything that Sally thinks that she isn’t.  In fact she’s a Troo genius.  Sally is the moral compass in this tale in which most of her elders, except for her black Southern Baptist best friend Ethel Jenkins, who lives with Mrs. Galecki, don’t pay attention to what their children have to say.

The secondary characters of Ethel Jenkins, Mrs. Galecki’s son Mr. Gary who visits from California, Rasmussen, the skinniest kid in the world: peeping Mary Lane, Fast Suzie Fazio, “Mongoloid” Wendy Latour and her evil brother Reese, Greasy Al Molinari, Sally’s landlady Mrs. Goldman, Henry Fitzpatrick and Sampson the gorilla at the local zoo, are wonderfully depicted but there are a whole cast of characters here who would feel as equally at a home in a John Waters movie as they would in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Whistling in the Dark was Lesley Kagen’s debut novel (hardcover published in 2007) and it was recommended to me by a friend of my mom’s.  It took a while for me to get around to reading it but I’m really glad that I did because it’s a gem of a story with a narrative led by ten-year-old Sally in a language that’s as rich, humorous and imaginative as young Sally’s overactive imagination.  Encompassing the themes of loss, both of people we love and the loss of our innocence in childhood, as well as fear – fear of our feelings, fear of what people think, and fear of the unknown – Whistling in the Dark is an immensely entertaining, clever and tender tale of relationships, mystery and discovery that will take you back to your own childhood, no matter what decade you grew up in.

The Red Album of Asbury Park by Alex Austin

Book Review
Title: The Red Album of Asbury Park
Author: Alex Austin
Publisher: Virtualbookworm.com Publishing
Re-released: 2008
Pages: 252
ISBN – 978-1-60264-218-8
Stars: 3.0

I must confess that it took me a while to get into The Red Album of Asbury Park and I didn’t start to appreciate it until around Chapter 9. While it is well-written and detailed in its often disconsolate description of Asbury Park and the surrounding area in the late 1960s, it’s more of a murder mystery than a tribute to the good old days of rock ‘n’ roll. Getting to know the main character – freshly discharged from the service and the Vietnam War, wannabe rock star Sam Nesbitt – is a bit painstaking.

“Cast down into the resort on a winter night, Sam Nesbitt, 22, arrives broke and homeless, but filled with musical ambition. Seeking shelter, he boards a floating wooden swan ride, one of the seaside resort’s numerous offbeat attractions abandoned in winter.

Drifting into an intoxicating dream of a rock ‘n’ roll future, Sam is nettled from the fantasy of fame and regained love by men’s voices rising outside the swan, discussing Jersery Arcana…and murder.

To the backbeat of a brutal struggle to control a dying and increasingly surreal town, Sam pursues a vision at once heroic and carnal, self-destructive and soul affirming.”

While taking shelter in the aforementioned wooden swan and hiding from the gangsters whose conversation he is overhearing, Sam carelessly cuts his left hand with a fishing knife, severing a few tendons in the process, leaving him with no alternative but a costly surgery if he’s going to ever be able to play the guitar again.

Sam’s parents are alcoholics. The brutal father who raised him (but wasn’t his biological father) is now dead and his mother is trying to survive and stay on the wagon. His younger brother Tom wastes his time surfing with his friend Brandon and lives like a vagabond. All Sam can think about is being the guitarist in a band, writing songs, and alternately daydreaming about a girl named Jillian whom he met on a rather gruesome train ride back to New Jersey and his first love, the more conventional, Julie.

Sam’s unemployment benefits are running out and he needs $2,000 for hand surgery so he foolishly decides that his only option is to accept the offer of one of the murderer’s he overheard (and ran into in a local bar) and get the money from a shady loan shark.

Not long after, his hand is on the mend and he stumbles into a job installing and fixing antennas which gives him the opportunity to purchase an amp for his guitar. Ready to manifest his rock ‘n’ roll dreams, Sam joins a band called The Neons and starts playing a mix of bluesy rock cover tunes by artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Yardbirds, The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival, all bands that I know and admire. He finally summons the confidence to pursue Jillian who just happens to be the singer in another local band that is experiencing some success, called The Decisive Moment.

The Red Album of Asbury Park is not uplifting or soul affirming in any way. It’s about a young man who dreams of rock stardom but deep down knows he’s never going to get out of Jersey because he’s trapped and stuck working for the malevolent Terrence Cassidy (T.C.) while at the same time trying to work through his father issues in a rather self-destructive manner.

The story is equivalent to watching a decently acted, B mob movie, set in a very grey and dreary place. It’s curiously entertaining and you keep hoping that the story is going to become more positive and hopeful, but it never does. While it has unexpected twists in it, the book was overall too much of a downer to be the fun rock ‘n’ roll tribute to the Asbury Park of the late 60s that I was hoping for.

All this being said, Los Angeles based novelist and playwright Alex Austin is a strong enough writer that I would definitely read more of his work. The Red Album of Asbury Park is a sequel to Austin’s first novel, The Perfume Factory which I haven’t read, but perhaps if I had, I might have enjoyed his second book more.

POST REVIEW NOTE

I just found out from the author that the book was re-written and republished as The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed and it has been receiving nothing but glowing reviews. I would highly recommend looking for it if you’re interested in this story as I’m sure I would have rated it considerably higher.