A Magical Tale

The Mermaid’s Sister, by Carrie Anne Noble, (Skyscape), 237 pages, release date 1 March, 2015

The Mermaid’s Sister is a fairy tale. Not a clumpy, damsel-in-distress story that’s been told for generations. The Mermaid’s Sister is fresh and heartening—and the damsel is perfectly capable of looking after herself.

From the moment I started reading this book, I found myself slipping into its world with an internal sigh of pleasure. The prose is beautiful: unadorned, but with sparkling clarity. I quite honestly could not put this book down once I started it.

Clara and Maren are foundlings being raised by an old woman, Aunt Verity, a healer who is of part-fairy blood. Clara was brought by a stork. Maren arrived in a seashell. All three of them have known that someday Maren would turn into a mermaid. As this transformation begins, Clara realizes she will eventually have to bring Maren to the sea. She doesn’t want to lose her sister, but as Aunt Verity says, “We have to be who we are.”

Clara is helped in this undertaking by O’Neill, another foundling, this one raised by a traveling peddler. The three of them leave the girls’ mountain-top home, journeying east toward the sea. The don’t know that they are being pursued by an unscrupulous trio who run a circus and patent medicine business and who hope to use Maren in their sideshow. As Maren grows smaller and weaker, Clara and O’Neill struggle to save her, aided by Clara’s pet wyvern.

This book is marketed as young adult fiction, but it will make satisfying reading for anyone ready to embrace a bit of magic.

An Eclectically Populated Mystery

The Jade Butterfly: A Dan Sharp Mystery, (Dundurn), 344 pages, released 3 March, 2015

After I finished The Jade Butterfly last night, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the book. My experience with it was a mix of ups and downs, but it left me curious to see what the next Dan Sharp mystery will offer.

The Ups:

The Jade Butterfly is populated by a genuinely multicultural mix of characters. Seeing their interactions and the ways they build community was genuinely enjoyable.

• I love the fact that the central character, Dan Sharp, is both a gay father with primary responsibility for raising a son and a gay man who hasn’t compromised his own sexuality.

• Dan Sharpe’s best friend, Donny, a gay, black man is a well-developed character, and the thoughtful interactions between these two men ring true. The fact that Donny is now raising a former street kid, means we get not one, but two models of gay parenting.

• While the plot is a bit more spy-versus-spy than the type of mystery I typically read, it’s interesting. Most readers will find themselves surprised by the ending.

• I appreciate that the mystery centers around events at Tienanmen square, bringing the impact of that time up to the present day.

The Downs:

• The pacing of the book is uneven. Some scenes rush by quickly, some are drawn out. It’s not clear why the writer made these choices and the fluctuation doesn’t seem to serve a literary purpose.

• The prose gets turgid at points, weighed down in flourishes that detract from the action in the book. It’s as if the writer hasn’t clearly developed his own style, so is relying from time to time on exercises in analogy or structure or…. These sentences serve the purpose of being fancy sentences, but they don’t make a positive addition to the novel’s overall effect.

As I said at the start, I am curious to see where the Dan Sharp character goes. I’m also curious to see some of the secondary characters develop—not just Donny, but also Ked, Dan’s son; Kendra, the mother of Ked, a fiercely independent woman who has created an effective balance for herself between pursuing her own interests and making positive contributions to her son’s life; there’s even an inept government agent who could be developed into an interesting recurring character. If you like watching characters grow across a series, The Jade Butterfly may offer you a satisfying new experience.

When Henry James Met Sherlock Holmes

The Fifth Heart: A Novel, by Dan Simmons, (Little, Brown and Company), 624 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Sprawling would be a good adjective to describe Dan Simmon’s The Fifth Heart—so long as one is willing to embrace the idea of intellectual sprawl. This novel attempts to do many things at once and, for the most part, succeeds.

Like many recent novels, The Fifth Heart makes use of Sherlock Holmes’ missing years following his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls to place Holmes in a situation quite unlike any found in the original Conan Doyle titles. Here the unusual setting is literary America shortly before the opening of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Instead of Watson, Holmes has Henry James for a sidekick. Other well-know characters include Henry Adams, Samuel Clemmons, and Theodore Roosevelt.

There are two mysteries at the heart of this novel: the suicide (or was it?) of Henry Adams’ wife a number of years previously and a world-wide anarchist plot set to coincide with the opening of the Exposition. The former mystery is better developed in terms of the ways in which it communicates the logic and emotions of the novel’s various characters. The second is more richly plotted and more effectively resolved at the novel’s end.

Simmons alternates between three narrative points of view (all presented in third person): there’s an omniscient-Holmes viewpoint, an omniscient-James viewpoint, and a philosophical author-of-this-particular-novel viewpoint. At times, the shifts into these different voices—particularly the third—jar, but the richness they add to the novel more than compensates for such infelicities.

I just wrote that there are two mysteries at the heart of this novel, but there’s actually a third as well: the question of human existence. How do we know we exist? To what extent are we our own creations? To what extent are we the creations of others? The Holmes-James pairing is ideal for exploring such questions. Holmes has become convinced that he is a fictional character; James meanwhile, a creator of fictions, is also his own greatest creation.

All these riches make the book a pleasure on many levels. It offers a workable pair of mysteries; an interesting new twist in Holmesian literature; documentation of a time of wide gaps between rich and poor in the U.S.; and a genuinely interesting, multi-voiced reflection on the nature of self. When you need a big novel to sink into, one that you can approach from a philosophical point of view or for pure entertainment, The Fifth Heart will serve you well.

A Victorian Detective for Our Times

Children of the Tide: A Victorian Detective Story, by Jon Redfern, (Dundurn), 296 pages, release date March 24, 2015

Children of the Tide is the second novel featuring inspector Owen Endersby, though it’s the first novel in I’ve read in this series—and I am hoping it will be a many-volumed series. While the book is set in Victorian London, Endersby is one of those characters whose views bridge his purported time and our own, allowing for a commentary on life in Victoria’s England that is perhaps a bit modern in its outlook, but that is also sympathetic and not unbelievable.

Endersby critiques the norms of his time, while living comfortably within them. In this case, he is investigating the murders of two workhouse matrons and the aborted kidnapping of two workhouse girls, both named Catherine. Early on we’re told “Any mention to [Endersby] of workhouses and their cruelty to children roused a deep anger in his heart. Many times he had passed the filthy courtyards of the city’s eight workhouses and seen their young inmates marching around them in circles, their faces wan, their eyes sad like those of inmates he’d seen in the yard of Fleet Prison.” Once inside one of these workhouses, Endersby reflects: “What sorrow pervades the morning light…. What thin hands and thin bodies are arrayed on the rows of beds. Why does our time treat women so cruelly?” Whether or not such questions were typical of his time, they are worth asking.

Endersby began his career as a Bow Street Runner, more concerned with seeing someone convicted of a crime than with finding the actual perpetrator. Now, as a member of the city’s new police force, he is more cautious and contemplative, more interested in uncovering what has happened than he is in quickly finding someone, anyone on whom to place the blame. He talks his way through a crime as if it were one of the wooden puzzles he amuses himself with during the evenings.

Endersby is also a theater-goer with a particular love of Shakespeare. Children of the Tide contains echoes of both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, the first Endersby mystery (which I’ve just ordered through my local, independent bookseller) takes place within the theater world. I’m eager to read it.

Jon Redfern has plotted this mystery well, with a number of tantalizing solutions hanging for readers to pluck like a bunches of ripe grapes. And because Redfern leaves so many possibilities open, the reader really does remain in doubt until the finish of the book. Redfern and Endersby are a gift to readers of mysteries and historical fiction—I urge you to open these books and to enjoy them for yourself.

I Love Salad Love

Salad Love: 260 Crunchy, Savory, and Filling Meals You Can Make Every Day, by David Bez, (Clarkson Potter, Random House), 304 pages, released 24 February, 2015

David Bez’s Salad Love is one of those wonderful cookbooks that not only provide delicious recipes, but also include adaptions and variations to meet a variety of dietary practices. It is also designed to encourage play and improvisation. Bez’s entry into the world of salads was sparked by a desire to eat more vegetables and fruits. Several years ago, he challenged himself to eat salad for lunch at work each day—and to create a new recipe with each salad. This practice led to the creation of his blog, Salad Pride. Now he’s gathered his favorite salads in this book.

Many of his combinations are new (sometimes surprising), and they all sound delicious. Yellow Pepper, Broccoli, Chile, and Coconut Cream. Oak-Smoked Cheddar, Peaches, and Blueberries. Fennel, Blue Cheese, and Pistachios. Pecorino, Black Grapes, and Pine Nuts. Yummmmm.

In addition to the inherent deliciosity of the recipes, I have a number of other reasons for loving Salad Love.

• Variety. Bez classifies each recipe as raw, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or omnivore and provides a good balance of all of these. Whatever your dietary practices, with 260 recipes, there will be plenty tailored to your needs.

• More variety. While each recipe is assigned to one of Bez’s five categories, each recipe contains suggestions for transforming the recipe to make it suitable for another category. He’ll show you how to go from pescatarian to raw, from vegan to omnivore, all sorts of transformations. What this means is that you have not only 260 recipes, but also 260 clearly described alternatives.

• Pictures! This is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. 280 of its 304 pages feature large color photographs, so you don’t have to guess about how a recipe will actually look once you’ve put the time into making it. The colors, textures, and patterns in these salads make for mouth-watering browsing.

• Simplicity. Each of these recipes can be put together in twenty minutes or less—and most of them are the “or less” type. Yes, you can make these salads at work and still have enough of a lunch break left to eat them. In my own case, I’m thinking of these as go-to recipes when I have to put a dinner together after a long day at work.

• Flexibility. The recipes are for generous single-serving salads. If you want to use them as a side, one salad will feed two. If you want them as a main course, just multiply the ingredient lists by the number of people you’re planning to feed.

If you’re trying (like Bez) to eat more fruits and vegetables or you’re just hoping to put a pleasing meal together without sacrificing an hour or more of your time, this is a book worth having.


Naughty Nuns of the 14th Century

The Dragon of Handale: A Mystery, by Cassandra Clark, (Minotaur Books), 352 pages, release date 17 March, 2015

While I’ll admit to being somewhat ambivalent about The Dragon of Handale, I’m also willing to admit that it’s a fun read. Hildegard, a former nun recently returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, is visiting the isolated Handale Priory, hoping to decide whether to return to the religious life or to begin a secular existence. This novel is one in a series, so I had to do a bit of careful reading for back-story, but the back-story is there—and Cassandra Clark doesn’t bludgeon the reader with it the way a less apt writer might.

Hildegard finds little opportunity for reflection as she tackles a number of related mysteries: the murder of a stone mason working on a project at the priory; the death (or murder?) of a priest; the disappearances of novices; a tower likely full of smuggles goods; masochistic penitents; sadistic nuns; pending civil war in England; and the existence of dragon that may or may not be responsible for the deaths.

The novel doesn’t paint a particularly rich picture of the political situation in England at that time, but readers can enjoy following Hildegard as she puzzles things out. In several spots, the author uses an excluding-the-reader device—letting readers know that Hildegard has made discoveries, but not revealing what those discoveries are. This occasionally leaves the readers feeling oddly separated from the protagonist, but as I said above, The Dragon of Handale is a fun read.

Malcolm X in the Old World

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Antiracist Protest, by Stephen Tuck, with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates, (University of California Press), 288 pages, released 20 November, 2014

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union is a rare creature: a scholarly work thick with information that nonetheless makes for a lively, thought-provoking read. I knew X had completed the hajj and that that pilgrimage had transformed his understanding of Islam and of race, but somehow I’d missed (or forgotten?) the fact that X spoke at Oxford.

The Oxford Union is both a building and an organization, one renowned for the debates it hosts. Figures of both national and international importance participate in these debates, and many British politicians launch their careers from the Oxford Union. To imagine X in this bastion of centuries-old privilege at first seems rather surreal, but, as Tuck demonstrates, X was a good fit for the Union and for Oxford when he visited in 1964.

Though still predominantly white, Oxford had begun admitting students from its colonies. The idea was to transform these “natives” so that they could return home to build their emerging nations in the image of Britain. Given the prejudice (and general ignorance) these students encountered at Oxford, the education that was supposed “British-ize” them actually radicalized them. Tuck cites one such student, the Jamaican Stuart Hall (later a founder of the New Left Review) who reflects on his Oxford years and their transformative power: “Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized…. Three months at Oxford persuaded me that… I’m not English and I never will be.”

Tuck helps readers explore the different faces of racism in the U.S. and Britain at that time. The U.S. civil rights movement worked for the equality of African American citizens whose families had been in the U.S. for generations. In Britain issues of race were also issues of immigration. Britains were shocked by the violence with which Jim Crow laws were upheld in the U.S., but had not really acknowledged the ways in which their colonial policies were a form of Jim Crown on an international scale.

Thus, when X arrived at Oxford, he was seizing a crucial moment, one that would resonate on both sides of the Atlantic. The theme of the debate was “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” —a statement that originated, rather ironically, with U.S. conservative Barry Goldwater.

X’s approach, as Tuck explains it, was to problematize the idea of extremism itself. He critiqued both the U.S. and the British press for their tendency to portray those engaged in civil rights struggles as extremists. X’s primary example to illustrate this distortion was the Congo, where the U.S. and Britain were upholding the government of authoritarian strongman Moise Tshombe. X observed that “Congolese have been massacred by white people for years and years…. The Congo situation is a nasty example of how a country, because it is in power, can take its press and make the world accept something that’s absolutely criminal.”

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at Oxford Union is composed of five substantial chapters each focusing on a single theme: the evolution of X’s political thinking up until the time of the debate; British colonialism and race; antiracist protests at Oxford in the decade before X’s talk; the debate itself; and the debate’s legacy in both Britain and the U.S. Due to the breadth of Tuck’s knowledge, each of these chapters has the structure of a finely woven web, with strands of information strikingly interwoven. This is a book, not just worth reading, but worth rereading—and given Tuck’s lucid prose, each of those readings will be deeply satisfying.

Dark Journeys

Gretel and the Dark: A Novel, by Eliza Granville, (Riverhead Hardcover), 352 pages, release date 16 October, 2014.

Had I read Eliza Granville’s Gretel and the Dark in 2014 when it was released, it most definitely would have been on my “best of” list. As it is, I think I will probably have to include it on the 2015 list, even though it was released earlier.

Initially, one feels a bit nonplussed by this novel and all it contains. It opens with a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The novel then moves on to 1899 Vienna, where a naked, shorn-headed, badly beaten woman with a numerical tattoo on one wrist has been taken in by a psychotherapist who both wants to help her, but also wants to claim the glory he feels he’s deserved, but has never been given. Lilie (the name he gives his new patient) insists that she is a machine, without name or family, who has been sent to turn-of-the century Vienna to kill the monster “Adi” before he becomes too powerful. She warns the psychotherapist that the fate of his own descendants rests upon the success of her mission.  After that, the novel takes us to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where we meet young Krysta whose mother has recently committed suicide and whose father works in the facility’s “infirmary.” From that point on, readers move back and forth between the stories of Lilie and Krista.

The mix of fable, what appears to be science fiction, and Holocaust literature is demanding, draining, and seemingly disconnected, but the writing is so compelling that it pulls the reader along, even through this difficult beginning. And as one keeps reading the parallels among the three stories gradually become clearer. Not until then end of the book, though, does the reader fully understand the connections among these these narratives.

Gretel and the Dark contains a great deal of unhappiness and unkindness, but it is not without hope. Hope burns within it like a single, small candle in the middle of the darkness that is the bulk of the novel.

Eliza Granville’s ability to imagine and depict the seemingly unimaginable continually floored me. As I read, I turned the novel’s events over and over in my mind—but I also found myself wondering about the magic of fiction and the power of a truly great writer, who can create an entire world, worlds actually, and make them vivid enough for readers to temporarily live within them.

This is one of those books I know I’ll be returning to every few years both for the merits of the writing and the structure, as well as for the complex reflection it inspires. Buy it in hardback, so it will allow you multiple readings.

Hearing Voices

The Listener: A Novel, by Rachel Basch, (Pegasus), 336 pages, release date 15 March, 2015

Rachel Basch’s The Listener wasn’t the novel I’d expected it to be, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. What I’d picked up on while reading the promotional material was that it dealt with a college psychologist working with an intersexed student: Noah, biologically a young man, but who moves back and forth between male and female genders in daily life.

Noah is there, but so are a lot of other characters: the therapist’s two adult daughters, his private-practice partner who’s having an affair, the partner’s wife, Noah’s mother, and Noah’s best friend Alex. The emotional center of the novel is the therapist, Malcolm Dowd, whose professional and private lives resonate with one another in uncomfortable ways.

The novel is a bit of a soap opera, but a thoughtful soap opera, one that attempts to get inside the motivations of the different characters, rather just presenting them as easily recognizable types. No one in this book is all he or she might be. The flaws of the different characters peak at different moments, keeping their relationships with one another brittle—but still, oddly, hopeful. Though the characters vary in age, each is still a work in progress, which creates a sort of emotional equality at the heart of the book.

Surviving Henry VIII’s England

Lamentation: A Shardlake Novel, by C. J. Sansom, (Mulholland Books), 656 pages, release date 24 February, 2015

You know what it’s like when you find a good series of novels: you burn your way through them, then anxiously wait out the years it takes for a new volume to appear. I feel this way about C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels. Historical mysteries set in Henry VIII’s England, these books are richly plotted and demonstrate a complex grasp of that time’s theology and politics (and theology was politics in Henry’s England).

Shardlake is a semi-outsider character. He has a comfortable income, but is still viewed with disdain by many of the political figures he finds himself working for. He’s also a hunchback, which adds another level of disdain, as deformities of the body were often viewed as evidence of deformities of the soul. In Henry’s England, human lives were easily sacrificed to political ends, so Shardlake isn’t only looked down upon: he’s viewed as disposable.

Lamentation is set at the end of Henry’s reign. The King is clearly dying, though it’s treason to say so. Henry has been separated from Rome and has ruled as the Head of the Church of England for years. He vacillates between religious reform and conservatism.  The Protestant and Catholic factions in his government are fighting to see which will come to power once Henry dies and the crown is passed on to his underage son, who will be guided by regents.

One of the book’s early scenes is the burning of the heretic Anne Askew, which illustrates how very dangerous questions of faith can be at this time. Accusations of heresy can be easily used to harm a business or political rival.

Henry’s sixth (and final) wife, Catherine Parr, is a member of the Protestant faction, and more of a reformer than Henry himself, which puts her at considerable risk in this unsettled time. Shardlake has admired Catherine since before her rise to Queen, so when she summons him to the palace, he goes willingly—even though he realizes that once again he will be drawing close to the dangerous politics of the court. A book has been stolen from Catherine’s apartments, a book written in her own hand and from a clearly reformist perspective. Either side might want to use it for their own ends, and regardless of who possesses it, Catherine risks the king’s wrath should he come to know of her Lamentations of a Sinner.

Shardlake agrees to hunt for the book under the pretense of looking for a stolen jewel and soon finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue, as the saying goes. There’s a murdered radical printer; memoirs of Anne Askew that attest to her having been tortured by two members of the King’s council; an uncertain pact with an old enemy; and a group of reformers who may be trying to smuggle both Catherine and Anne’s books to the continent, where they can be published by reformist presses.

Sansom’s Shardlake novels gets richer (and, happily, longer) as the series progresses, and Lamentations is an excellent addition. Let’s hope that Shardlake will outlive the King and continue his work during the reigns of Henry’s three children.