Archive for February, 2016

Walt Whitman vs. the Body Snatchers

Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery, by J. Aaron Sanders, (Plume), 320 pages, publication date 1 March, 2016

Imagine Walt Whitman as a detective. Imagine him in 1843 New York where medical schools rely on body snatchers to provide corpses for dissection. Imagine Whitman seeking justice on the behalf of of friends—a husband and wife running the city’s first medical school for women. Imagine him reunited with an early love who joins his search for justice. Speakers of the Dead provides all of these in a fast-paced, engaging mystery set during a pivotal moment in the history of New York and of medical science.


February 25 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Knit, Purl, See the World

Knitlandia: A Knitter Sees the World, by Clara Parkes, (STC Craft/A Melanie Falick Book), 160 pages, release date 16 February, 2o16

I love knitting, but sometimes I’m not ready to pick up a new project—or an old one. Then I love leafing through books that are knitting-related. Clara Parkes is the author of two of my favorite information/pattern knitting books: The Knitter’s Book of Yarn and The Knitter’s Book of Wool. Even if you’re a long-time knitter, reading one of these will probably double your overall fibre knowledge.

Knitlandia doesn’t have any patterns, but that’s not the point. Parkes is a knitting writer; she’s also a knitting instructor who’s given workshops world-wide. When your brain feels too full for another exposition on double-knitting or a discussion of U.S. vs. British vs. German needle sizes or a debate about “true” lace, but you need a knitting fix—stat!—this is the book for you. Reading Parkes is like sitting with a good friend as she tells you detailed, heart-warming, hilarious tales about her world travels. Plus knitting!

Knitlandia will have you planning your own knitting expeditions: to wool festivals, wool mills, and wool workshops. Pick it up when you need a burst of good knitting mojo,but aren’t ready to cast anything new on yet.

February 18 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Terror of the Real and the Unreal

Lovecraft Country: A Novel, by Matt Ruff, (Harper), 384 pages, release date 16 February, 2016

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is one of those novels that defies categorization. It is a tale of terrifying fantasy worthy of H. P. Lovecraft himself. It is also an unsettling exploration of race in 1950s America.

Atticus Turner, a black veteran of the Korean War, seeks his missing father, who disappeared while exploring the mysterious origins of his wife’s family. Atticus is accompanied by his uncle George, author and publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, and a childhood friend named Letitcia, who proves surprisingly quick-thinking and resourceful. Their search takes them through woods in which an unseen malevolent creature roams, a strangely isolated village that could almost come from the previous century, a haunted mansion, and an observatory that can carry people to any location in the universe.

But these horrors are almost superseded by the risks involved in daily life as negro travelers. The trio are tailed, threatened, refused service, and attacked. The unusual horrors of the supernatural can be overcome; the horrors of racism persist. The Safe Negro Travel Guide is an essential part of this road trip.

Lovecraft Country makes for compelling reading, pairing an action-laden plot with unsettling questions that will remain with the reader long after the book is closed. This is a perfect book for reading in the dark of winter—and both sets of horrors it presents will make sleep difficult when bedtime arrives.

February 16 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Murder Most Literary

Jane and the Waterloo Map, by Stephanie Barron, (Soho Press), 320 pages, release date 2 February, 2016

Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary, by M. L. Lee (Endeavor Press), 303 pages, release date 28 January, 2016

I’m always eager for a historical mystery, particularly one featuring real-world characters. I’ve read two recently, neither of which was”high literature,” but both of which offered a delightful escape from ordinary life. Jane and the Waterloo Map features Jane Austen as the heroine, and is set shortly after the British victory at Waterloo. Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary features an eponymous central character and takes place shortly after the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Both of these mysteries, while they make light reading, feature moments of historical importance, times when Britain saw threats from within, as well as without. This insight into particular historical moments gives a note of seriousness to both titles, which can be used as entrées into their particular historical moments.

Jane Austen makes an enjoyable heroine. She’s smart and self-determined, but also a character of her time, frustrated by the common views of her gender and by her own desire for “ordinary,” as well as literary, life. The novel opens as Jane faces a conundrum. The Prince Regent George the Fourth (George the Third has been temporarily removed from the throne because of his madness) is a self-indulgent voluptuary, exactly the sort of man Jane would find repugnant—but he’s let it be known that he likes her writing and would welcome having her next book dedicated to him, which puts Jane in a bit of an authorial bind. When Jane journeys to the Prince’s London residence, Carlton House, she faces a complication much more serious than her literary dilemma: a famous soldier from the Battle of Waterloo drops dead at her feet in the Prince’s library. This title is the 13th in Barron’s Jane Austen mystery series, and Jane’s character and her relationships with other are well fleshed-out, adding some interest to the novel beyond the solution of the mystery itself.

Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary finds Pepys in a delicate situation when his diary disappears. He’s sent to do a bit of investigating for Charles the Second at a port, but is preoccupied with the question of who might have taken his diary. Although he’s written the diary in code, codes are breakable, and he’s been injudiciously, perhaps treasonably, honest about his mixed perceptions of the King and other court figures. Thus, as Pepys pursues one mystery, he can’t shake the dangerous implications of another. Pepys’ character is engaging, but not as well-rounded as one might like. What really shines here are Pepys’ relationships with both his much-aggrieved assistant Will Hewer and with his brother-in-law Balthazar (“Balty”), whose gastronomic capacities and preoccupations seem infinite.

When you’re looking for an entertaining read with a bit more substance underlying the characters and situations, either of these books will serve you well.

February 11 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Supernatural Convalescent Hospital

Shadow Wrack: The Eldritch Manor Series, by Kim Thompson, (Dundurn), 168 pages, release date 21 December, 2015

If you know a younger reader who enjoys stories pairing fantasy with feisty, young heroines, you’ll want to give her a copy of Shadow Wrack. In this case, the heroine is Willa, who works as an assistant at Eldritch Manor, a retirement home for supernatural beings. Not surprisingly, life can quickly grow complicated when it’s filled with characters like the queen of the fairies and her officious assistant, a dissatisfied centaur, and a sphinx who’s a bit of a loose cannon. In addition, there are the strange black spots that have begun to appear and expand and the frightening, stork-like men who come out of them. Dundurn presents this title as appropriate for ages 9 to 12, and it will definitely prove a pleasure to readers in that age range.

February 09 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Life with the Nine Days’ Queen

The Lady of Misrule: A Novel, by Suzannah Dunn, (Pegasus), 320 pages, release date 11 January, 2016

Lady Jane Grey briefly ruled England after the death of Edward VI. Popular resistance to her rule—she was of royal blood, but not the most directly in line for the throne—saw her quickly changed from Queen to captive. She spent the last months of her life in the Tower of London, while Mary I ascended to the throne. Jane Grey is one of those romantic, era-defying, minimally documented women that make for thin biographies, but wide imaginings. Highly literate, deeply religious, uninterested in taking the throne (one story has it that her parents starved and beat her until she agreed to marry and become queen) she bears traditional powers, but also rebels against the traditions of her time.

In Lady of Misrule, Suzannah Dunn imagines the last months of Jane Grey’s life through the eyes of Elizabeth Tilney, who is assigned the role of Jane’s companion during her imprisonment. Elizabeth sees this posting as a bit of an adventure (and a solution to problems of her own). She will escape from the day-to-day duties and predictability of her own life. Besides, the posting is temporary: everyone knows that Mary I will pardon Jane after a suitable period. Mary just needs to assert her authority as monarch before she can allow Jane this reprieve.

That, as readers familiar with British history will know, never happens. Jane’s life ends in the Tower with her execution for treason.

In her own ways, Elizabeth is just as iconoclastic as Jane. She’s a youngest daughter who has seen enough of marriages (her mother’s and her sisters’) that she’s in no hurry to marry. She’s curious and passionate enough to take sexual risks unusual for a young woman of her time. But while Elizabeth and Jane are both rebels, they are also greatly unalike. Jane is studious and serious, spending most of every day with her books as she writes a defense of Protestantism; Elizabeth has no use for reading and prefers observing life in the Tower from a window seat.

Lady of Misrule is a quick read that offers satisfying character development, along with interesting historical detail. Adult readers of historical fiction will find it enjoyable—and younger readers with any interest in history will appreciate it as well.

February 04 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

All the World’s a Stage, Including Stalin’s Russia

The Yid: A Novel, by Paul Goldberg, (Picador), 320 pages, release date 2 February, 2016

Paul Goldberg’s The Yid is such an original work that it’s hard to know where to begin with a review. Goldberg tells the stories of six friends—four of them Jewish—who cook up a plan to kill Stalin at the same time that Stalin is developing plans to expel (with some other kinds of elimination as well) all Jews from Russia. Solomon Levinson, who sets the novel’s action in motion is a former Red Russian fighter who later became an actor in the Moscow State Jewish Theater (no longer in existence). When members of the secret police arrive to arrest him, Levinson puts on the performance of a lifetime, first confounding, then killing them.

The action of the novel spirals out chaotically after this. Levinson’s friend Frederick Lewis, an African-American engineer from the US living in Russia to avoid the racism of his home country, agrees to help get rid of the bodies. Next the pair head to the home of their friend the doctor Aleksander Kogan, who owns a dacha where they hope to hide the bodies. As the novel progresses, they are joined by Kima, a young woman whose father was killed in a previous purge; Moisey Semyonovich, who like Levinson and Kogan is a former revolutionary; and Ol’ga Fydorovna, who was once a companion to radical poets, most now dead.

If this were all there was to the novel, it would still be a grand success of dark humor, but the omniscient narrator comments on the action, exploring and critiquing it the way a theater critic might approach a new play. In a sense, The Yid is a text that annotates itself. The badinage (in both Russian and Yiddish), while fit for a comedy of manners, has some of humanity’s deepest questions at its heart, with observations that are simultaneously heart-breaking and hilarious.

In short: The Yid is a remarkable work of fiction, genuinely unique (a word that gets thrown around far too often), offering a teetering balance of history, humor, and tragedy. Read it.

February 02 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »