April 28, 2016

Resistance in Amsterdam

Girl in the Blue Coat, by Monica Hesse, translated by Natalia Payne, (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), 320 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

Don’t let the fact that Girl in the Blue Coat is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers fool you. Yes, young adults would enjoy this title, but it makes deeply satisfying reading for adults as well—and it’s worth making a trip into a different section of the bookstore.

The central character, Hanneke, has been surviving the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and providing sole support for her parents by dealing in black market goods. She works days as a receptionist in a funeral home whose owner is good at finding the increasingly rare things that wealthy Amsterdamers are willing to pay for. Hanneke serves as his delivery person.

Hanneke has no interest beyond keeping herself and her family safe. She certainly doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. However, Hanneke’s work in the black market brings her in contact with a group of young people working for the resistance… and the novel’s action proceeds from that point.

Monica Hesse has done valuable research into a little known part of the history of resistance in Amsterdam, and The Girl in the Blue Coat brings this history to vivid life.

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April 26, 2016

Dead and Deadened

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories, by Luke Mogelson, (Tim Duggan Books, Random Houe), 192 pages, release date 26 April 2016

I’m lucky to receive electronic review copies of a great many interesting books—but one of the rules that I’ve established for myself is that when one of the electronic review copies turns out to be of five-star quality, I buy it in hardback the day it’s released. Maybe that’s not necessary, but when I find a book that’s truly worth supporting I want to support it—both by blogging and through my personal purchasing power. These Heroic, Happy Dead is one of those books.

These Heroic, Happy Dead falls just shy of being a  novel. Instead it’s a collection of closely related stories tracking the lives of U.S. soldiers and their families, both while the soldiers serve in Afghanistan and after their return to the U.S. The heroic and the happy of the title are both sardonic. While these men may be brave, they aren’t heroes. And they’re certainly not happy.

Luke Mogelson shows us men who have been changed by war—both more detached and more volatile, more rigid and more unsure of what it is they hope for from their lives. The reader feels almost relieved not to be meeting these men in person, but at the same time empathizes with them. They may have been undirected before serving in Afghanistan; that war has now left them completely unmoored.

As these soldiers and ex-soldiers try to main a sot of minimalist existence, their families circle around them like asteroid-shattered planets. There’s the mother who is unaware of both the unthinking violence and the deep regret that live side by side within her son. A teenage son who understands that something is off with his father, but who doesn’t yet have enough experience of the world to understand how very off that off is.

This book is a quick read, but it’s worth taking slowly, letting the stories sink in one at a time, so each has its own full resonance and is more than just one part of a whole. I haven’t been in combat, so I can’t really know how accurate these stories are, but I do know that they overwhelmed me with their mix of tragedy, hope, and impotence in the face of both the world of war and the world at home.

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April 21, 2016

Dream Catchers, Distillers, and Bottlers

The Girl Who Could Not Dream, by Sarah Beth Durst, (Clarion Books), 384 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

Imagine a world where dreams can be captured, bottled, bought and sold, in which dream merchants must hide their trade from other who distrust their skills. Imagine, too, that a very few, very unique people, who cannot dream, can bring to life creatures from the dreams of others.  That’s the situation at the center of The Girl Who Could Not Dream.

Sophie has dreamed only once—when she stole a bottled dream from the dream store hidden beneath her parents’ bookshop. She brought her best friend back from that dream—a monster named Monster, who is fluffy, blue, four-legged, tentacled, and possessed of multiple rows of teeth. Aside from Monster, Sophie doesn’t have any real friends—just the kids at school she provides with dream catchers, which spare them from nightmares and allow her to bring dreams back to her parents’ store for distilling.

When Sophie’s parents disappear, she must rescue them from a world where dreams and reality increasingly overlap and in which terrifying creatures have begun to appear. In this process, she learns, finally, about friendships with other children (and a tribe of fluffy, pink killer-bunnies), about courage, and about forgiveness.

The Girl Who Could Not Dream is a fun, silly-serious, just-the-right-amount-of-frightening read for kids in late grade school or middle school. Its mingling of fantasy and the ordinary world make its magic seem almost possible.

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April 20, 2016

Black, White, and Yellow Fever

Lazaretto: A Novel, by Dianne McKinney-Whetstone, (Harper), 352 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

The key location in Lazaretto is, of course, a lazaretto: a quarantine hospital. In this case, the quarantine hospital is on an island in the harbor beside Philadelphia. Weak and dying immigrants—and Philadelphia residents suspected of carrying easily transmissible diseases—may find themselves isolated on the lazaretto, unsure of when they’ll be able to rejoin the wider world.

The crucial latter part of Lazaretto is set on the lazaretto, but much of the book takes place within the black community of Philadelphia in the years following the assassination of Abraham Lincolm. The book’s  characters range widely in color, occupation, and status. Added to the mix are orphaned twin brothers Abraham and Lincoln. While both are technically “white,” culturally they, too, are black: odd men out in a community full of odd men.

Lazaretto offers high-stakes drama: a murder, an attack by white racists leaving central characters  balanced on the cusp of life and death, pure and less-than-pure loves, spiritualism, and a possible outbreak of yellow fever. This novel propels readers along, with alternating waves of fear and celebration. The number of characters brought to life between its pages gives readers a panoramic view of a particular moment in U.S. history, when slavery has ended, but freedom is still a long way off.

Read this book for this historical and cultural insights it offers. Read it for its characters, who make excellent companions. And read it for the almost transcendental moments when McKinney-Whetstone offers readers yet one more surprise in a novel full of surprises.

 

 

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April 18, 2016

A Wishful-Thinking Elizabethan London

A Second Daniel, In the Den of The English Lion Volume I, by Neal Roberts, (Booktrope Editions), 364 pages, release date 28 September, 2015

Set in 1592 London, A Second Daniel straddles the line between historical fiction and historical wishful thinking. This doesn’t take away from the fun of reading the book, but it does mean that one cannot treat this as a piece of fiction revealing historical truth.

In 1558, “Noah Ames,” a young orphan and a Jew, stumbles into a chance meeting with Princess Elizabeth, soon to become Elizabeth I. She finds the boy charming and decides to pay for his education, which requires his new name and which requires carefully disguising—without denying—his Jewish heritage. Fast forward almost 35 years and Noah, now a lawyer, finds himself investigating the murder of a prominent Spanish merchant living in London. The merchant is connected to a London-based Spanish diplomat, who also happens to be a (semi)hidden Jew. And, the merchant leaves behind a beautiful widow who soon becomes Noah’s love interest.

The author makes good use of court intrigues during Elizabeth’s reign, drawing on historical sources. However, Daniel’s life as a secret Jew is much less likely. This author, like many, happily cites Elizabeth’s proclaimed desire to “not make windows into men’s souls,” taking it rather more generously than it was interpreted in Elizabeth’s London. In other words, this novel will require a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but once that is granted A Second Daniel makes for fun reading.

A Second Daniel is the first volume in what is intended as a series. Volume 2, The Impress of Heaven, was released in January. If you want a bit of an Elizabethan romp and aren’t too concerned with historical accuracy, you’ll enjoy this title. If you’re less tolerant of historical revisionism, you’ll want to look for more substantial reading.

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April 14, 2016

Calculations and Compromises

One Hundred Twenty-One Days, by Michele Audin, translated by Christiana Hills, (Deep Vellum Publishing), 200 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a novel that is so original it almost defies description. The characters are an assortment of mathematicians. The time period spans World Wars I and II. The style—well, the style varies depending upon which chapter you’re reading. As the reader works her way through the book’s many voices, the reader experiences a depiction of the processes by which we make choices and compromises during difficult times. Some of our mathematicians collaborate with occupying forces, some don’t. Some speak out when they see incipient fascism, some don’t. All of these actions are presented obliquely, requiring close attention. Given its intellectual and stylistic richness, I don’t doubt that this title will be one of my favorites of the year—and one I’ll be rereading sooner, rather than later.

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April 12, 2016

Touch of Poison

A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry, (Algonquin Young Readers), 288 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

Lucas is the son of a wealthy American developer who spends his summers living in a Caribbean hotel owned by his father. For years, he’s heard stories about the mysterious house at the end of the street. It’s perpetually shuttered, its gates locked. The man who owns it is a scientist who’s said to have driven his wife to madness. If you write a wish on a slip of paper and toss it over the wall surrounding this house, common knowledge claims that your wish will come true.

After his girlfriend disappears, Lucas finds himself drawn to this house, and he befriends Isabel, the girl who lives there. Isabel is even more unusual than rumor has it. She’s poison. Her breath can kill. Her touch leaves a rash and sores that last for days, along with debilitating weakness.

Lucas and Isabel become amateur detectives, trying to uncover the secrets behind the disappearances of several young women. Given who Isabel is, the threats aren’t only external. By working with her, Lucas puts his health, and ultimately his life, at risk.

The publisher presents this as a title for ages 12 to 18, and readers in that group will find this an engaging read. balancing menace, mystery, and romance.

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April 11, 2016

Murder and Printing in 17th-Century London

A Death Along the River Fleet: A Mystery, by Susanna Calkins, (Minotaur), 336 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

Minotaur, a publisher I rely on for good historical mysteries, has presented readers with another winner: Susanna Calkins’ A Death Along the River Fleet. Our heroine, Lucy Campion, is in the unusual position of being a female printer’s apprentice in 17th-Century London. Calkins depicts the time period effectively. Although a female printer’s apprentice may appear something of an anomaly, Lucy Campion, as presented, feels genuine. She recognizes her position as unusual and has worked hard to achieve it.

A Death Along the River Fleet opens with Lucy Campion, on her way to the print shop, suddenly confronted by a woman in a blood-stained nightgown. Not surprisingly, Lucy Campion quickly finds herself immersed in this woman’s story. The woman, it turns out, is a daughter of nobility, with no memory of how she came to be wandering the streets of London. Campion hopes to unravel the woman’s story—and as she tries to do this, it becomes clear that the threat the woman faced is still out there.

I find myself hoping that Lucy Campion will continue to experience adventures, and that I’ll be able to rejoin her thanks to the well-researched, engaging prose of Susanna Calkins. This fascinating woman has the depth and complexity to become a very rich figure indeed, one whose presence is every bit as engaging as the mysteries she solves.

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April 07, 2016

A Welcome Return of Russell and Holmes—and Hudson

The Murder of Mary Russell: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, by Laurie R. King, (Bantam), 384 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

I love Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes series and will read anything new she comes out with that lets me spend time with this pair. That said, two of her last three novels in this series, The Pirate King and Dreaming Spies, haven’t seemed as magical to me as most of the titles. They were still good reads, but the settings and backstories just felt a bit too involved and unlikely for my taste. I can happily report that The Murder of Mary Russell has all the strengths of the best titles in the series. There’s no exotic location, no ninjas or film directors—just Russell, Holmes, and Mrs. Hudson, along with a few supporting characters and a new villain. The Murder of Mary Russell relies on top-notch plotting and characterization to keep readers interested.

The Murder of Mary Russell allows readers to spend more time than they have in the past with Mrs. Hudson, housekeeper and enigma. Just as Locked Rooms gave readers a richer understanding of Russell, her experiences, and values, The Murder of Mary Russell makes Mrs. Hudson a fuller, more engaging character.

If you’re already a fan of King’s Russell and Holmes series, rejoice! You’ve got some delightful reading ahead of you. And if you’re not familiar with this series, now would be a good time to introduce yourself to it.

 

 

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April 06, 2016

A Painting with More than One Mystery at Its Heart

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel, by Dominic Smith, (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 304 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a wonderful example of a novel inspired by art. In this case, the artist is a fictional construct, but a very believable one—the first female member of a guild of master painters, admitted to the guild in 1631. Her husband is a master painter as well. While he paints landscapes, she paints flowers and dreams of new kinds of landscape paintings picturing the world seen from different, unexpected angles. Smith’s 17th Century Holland is bleak and believable. Sara de Vos is saddled with her husband’s debts after he deserts her and finds herself an uneasy resident artist in the home of a wealthy eccentric. It’s a life that requires constant perseverance in the face of one tragedy after another.

In more recent times, only one of Sara de Vos’s paintings survives: a bleak landscape, viewed from the perspective of a young girl who stands barefoot in the snow. Ellie Shiply, once an artist, now adjusting to life as a graduate student Art History, agrees to paint a forgery of this work. She’s told that what she is doing isn’t intended for criminal purposes, but it’s not long before her forgery hangs on the wall of the painting’s owner in place of the original. When a detective hired by original owner finds Shiply, her life is changed forever—both because of her fear that the forgery will put an end to her academic career and because of the relationship she finds herself building with the owner.

The two narratives twine years later when Shiply curates an exhibition of female Dutch painters and both the original and forgery are offered on loan from owners who believe them to be genuine.

Smith’s characters are flawed in exactly the right ways, with faults balanced by kindnesses or vulnerabilities of different sorts, so that readers can imagine slipping into their skins and living their lives both past and present. Waiting for a resolution of the problem of the two paintings—and for the impact it will have on Shiply’s life—makes the novel compelling reading. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos stands up well, and distinctively, among other achievements in this genre, like Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls or Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson. Readers with a love of art, of history, and of the mysterious are in for a treat.

 

 

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