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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 »

A Tale of a Cowardly Hero

River of Ink, by Paul M. M. Cooper, (Bloomsbury USA), 304 pages, release date 26 January, 2016

Paul M. M. Cooper’s River of Ink is a remarkably beautiful book; it is also thought-provoking. The book tells the story of Asanka, once a poor boy from the countryside, now court poet for the kingdom of Lanka. Asanka spends his time writing, conversing with the king, and teaching his lover, a palace maid named Sarasi, how to read and write.

The book’s action takes place in the 13th Century and opens at the moment when Asanka’s mostly idyllic life (he is also unhappily married) is torn apart. An invading army is approaching the palace; the king decides to surrender, rather than put his people through the devastation of war. The new ruler, Kalinga Magha, comes from the mainland and has little respect for Lanka’s island culture. In an effort to “civilize” the Lankans, he assigns Asanka the task of translating a an epic Sanskrit poem, the Shishupala Vadha, into Tamil, the local language. The new ruler will then distribute copies of the translation throughout the country to be read aloud to all his subjects.

In many ways, Asanka isn’t much of a hero. He has little empathy for his estranged wife. In the chaos of the conquest his only thoughts are for himself and Sarasi. He reads every word and gesture from Kalinga Magha as a possible omen of punishment or death. While he does not like the new ruler, Asanka is eager to serve him if this will guarantee his safety.

Nonetheless, Asanka becomes a hero in the eyes of the Lankan people. They take the first installment of his translation of the poem as a critique of the new government, conflating the vicious ruler Shishupala with Kalinga Magha. With great trepidation, Asanka attempts to become the man others see him as. In the second installment, he deliberately suggests parallels between the two rulers. Then terrified by what he’s done, he translates the third installment without any revolutionary additions. As the translation project continues, Asanka receives a series of unusual poetry manuscripts containing pieces retelling the tale of the Shishupala Magha from the perspective of its different characters. The literary bravery of this unknown poet, who casts aside the expected forms of Lankan poetry, inspires Asanka to continue his efforts at undermining Kalinga Magha.

While Asanka frets and compromises, Sirasi is more sure of her own stance. She identifies with the Lankan  villagers and spends her time away from the palace among them. She urges Asanka to take advantage of his position to help the island nation.

Because Asanka isn’t much of a hero, he is a character with whom mordern readers can identify. In our own lives, we often take the cautious, self-preserving route chosen by Asanka, rather than challenge injustice. We may wish for more from Asanka, but we can certainly empathize with him.

The beauty of the book’s prose contrasts starkly with Asanka’s uncertainty and willingness to compromise. It simultaneously offers the pleasures of finely crafted prose and the discomfort of critical self-reflection. Even if 13th Century Lanka seems greatly removed from our current world, A River of Ink has much to offer present-day readers.

January 26 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Puzzle without a Picture

The Children’s Home: A Novel, by Charles Lambert, (Scribner), 224 pages, release date 5 January, 2016

Charles Lambert’s The Children’s Home is a fever-dream of a novel. The recently disfigured Morgan Fletcher lives on a huge estate that he shares with his housekeeper, Engel. One day, a baby appears at the back door. After that, infants and children continue to arrive without explanation, and Engel and Morgan welcome and care for them.

The world outside the walls of Morgan’s estate is volatile, with shadowy government bureaus, a mysterious factory (run by Morgan’s estranged sister, Rebecca), frequent violence, and grinding poverty. One day, a pair of men from the welfare department appear, determined to take the children. Though it’s not stated directly, the implication is that they’ll be taken to the factory—as workers or, perhaps, as raw materials.

Add in a friendly doctor, an attic containing unnerving medical waxworks, and Morgan’s back story, and you have a tale that is both engaging and full of gaps. One of the pleasures of The Children’s Home is the uncertainties it contains, which force an active reading. Is it allegory? Science fiction? Alternative history? This novel is a puzzle without a picture to work from, which allows readers to see it in multiple ways. We’re at the start of the year, but I fully expect The Children’s House to appear on my “ten-best” list at the year’s end.

January 19 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Black is Back!

Even the Dead: A Quirke Novel, by Benjamin Black, (Henry Holt and Co.), 304 pages, release date 12 January, 2016

Quirke, the pathologist protagonist of Benjamin Black’s series is one of those characters who is fascinating on the page, but who would probably be much less pleasant in person. He’s a brooder who speaks little—and is blunt when speaking. He’s a chain smoker and an on-the-wagon, off-the-wagon drinker who’s mostly on. He’s deeply disappointed everyone close to him. Nonetheless, Black makes him a believable voice for justice in this series of novels.

The Quirke novels are set in Dublin in the early 1960s (which at least partly explains all the smoking). The Catholic church is not just a religious power, but a political one as well, backed by a cadre of very wealthy men whose “do-good” projects tend to result more in profits for themselves than in good for anyone else.

Quirke’s family life is complicated, though he has long been a widower. He’s the adopted son of a wealthy judge, now deceased, and brother to the judge’s biological son. Quirke was romantically involved (or wanted to be) with his brother’s first and second wives. His family history unfolds along with this series of novels, so I don’t want to reveal any more. You can read Even the Dead as a stand-alone or begin at the beginning—in which case you’ll want Christine Falls.

In Even the Dead, Quirke and his friend (though that’s not really the right word, given the kind of person Quirke is) Inspector Hackett are investigating the staged suicide of a radical politician’s son and the disappearance of that son’s girlfriend. Quirke is recovering from head trauma, doesn’t quite trust himself, and hasn’t been to his pathology office in months. It’s his assistant’s discovery of a suspicious head wound on the “suicide” that pulls him back into work.

The case once again leads Quirke into the dark side of Dublin’s elite religious networks—and also reveals one more complication in his already-complicated personal history.

Black is an exceptionally good writer. The reader of “literary fiction” is just as apt to draw pleasure from Even the Dead as is the reader of detective novels—and also the reader of historical fiction with more modern settings. As winter days grow shorter, it’s oddly comforting to settle back into Quirke’s bleak world, sharing in his all-to-infrequent moments of success protecting the needs of Dublin’s less wealthy and powerful.

January 13 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Journey with the Devil?

Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 336 pages, release date 5 January, 2016

For much of the time I was reading Mr. Splitfoot, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the novel. The characters were interesting, but not necessarily likable, so time spent with them was uneasy. But this dis-ease is really what the novel is all about. The characters aren’t people I’d want to spend real-world time with, but they don’t seem to want to spend time with themselves either. And there’s no easy choice that would suddenly turn any of them into a companion one would enjoy.

This novel takes place along two timelines that slowly draw together. In the earlier one, Eleanor and Ruth are sisters placed in the Love of Christ! Foster Home. When Eleanor ages out, Ruth finds a new sister in Nat, a boy her own age. In their volatile surroundings, their cross-gender sistering provides a steady, if troubled, sort of anchor.

Nat claims to be able to speak with the dead, and Ruth plays along with him, not entirely sure herself whether his contact with spirits is real or a scam. First, the pair earn money from other children in the home, contacting their dead relatives to deliver comforting messages. Then a mysterious Mr. Bell appears, takes them under his wing, and helps them perfect what is now most decidedly a con.

The novel’s second timeline follows Cora, daughter of Ruth’s sister Eleanor. Cora has a dead-end job and a dead-end boyfriend, gives her life meaning by doing on-line shoe shopping—and wrestles with the question of how she’ll handle her unexpected pregnancy.

Ruth appears at the home shared by Cora and Eleanor, refusing to speak, but making it clear that she wants Cora to follow her. Cora leaves with Ruth, expecting a journey of a few hours at the most, but Ruth drives them further and further away—and when their car breaks down, she silently makes it clear that she expects Cora to follow her on foot.

Ruth and Cora’s journey takes the pair across much of the territory of Ruth’s vagrant days, when Ruth, Nat, and Mr. Bell set up seances in houses they’d break into while the owners were vacationing. Ruth remains silent; Cora continues to follow. Once the two arrive at a large, remote home on a snow-covered mountain, the reader finally comes to understand the intersection of their two stories.

As the title might suggest, the devil is a constant presence in the story, but his identity isn’t clear. At times the author suggests he’s Mr. Bell, at other times he may Ruth’s short-term husband Zeke, even Ruth and Nat seem to embody him at times.

Ruth, Cora, Nat, and Mr. Bell aren’t necessarily companions one might willingly choose, but once you find yourself traveling alongside them, you’ll want to finish the journey.

January 11 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Volume Two in a Sherlock Holmes Series I Hope Will Be Long-Lived

Sherlock Holmes, the Missing Years: Timbuktu, by Vasudev Murthy, (Poisoned Pen Press), 270 pages, release date 5 January, 2016

A little less than a year ago, I read the first of Vasudev Murthy’s “Missing Years” novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and, of course, his companion Dr. Watson. I enjoyed that read, and I’m glad to say that Holmes and Watson are back again, this time visiting Venice before traveling the Sahara Desert.

The prize they’re searching for is of unimaginable value: the missing half of a parchment that originated with Marco Polo and that contains the secret to eternal life. Later the parchment (one half of it, anyway) was associated with the great Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta. Of course Holmes and Watson aren’t the only ones seeking the parchment: the last surviving descent of Ibn Battuta himself seeks it—as does Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty. Meanwhile, the “great game” is afoot with both Britain and France struggling for power in Morocco.

Holmes shows his usual respect for and quick adoption of different languages and cultures, learning first to speak Arabic and then the language of the Tauregs, a tribal people living in the Sahara who worship the long ago female founder of their society and who serve as his guides in the desert. At other times, Holmes poses as an accountant-priest, sent to Morocco by the Vatican.

One of the pleasures of this book is the multiple voices in which it’s narrated. We hear not only from Holmes and Watson, but also from Battuta’s descendant and Marco Polo himself (by way of a previously unknown travelogue). At first the changes in narrator felt unsettling, but the further I read, the more I enjoyed them. Not only did they allow Murthy to present readers with multiple perspectives, each of the different voices was distinct, reflecting a personality as well as relating events.

I’m waiting for volume three now, and hoping it won’t take longer than another year for it to appear. I’m eager to see where Holmes and Watson—and Murthy—will take me next.


January 07 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Daughter of Baba Yaga

The Door by the Staircase, by Katherine Marsh, illustrated by Kelly Murphy, (Disney-Hyperion), 288 pages, release date 5 January, 2016, publisher recommended for ages 8-12

The Door by the Staircase is Katherine Marsh’s riff on the Russian tale of the witch Baba Yaga. The book has all the creepiness and unworldliness of the folk tale, but Marsh expands on it, giving us a cluster of engaging characters who all draw our sympathy—including the witch herself.

Young Mary Hayes is happy to be adopted by the mysterious Madame Z, a woman who appears “hunched, with a long nose and big ears that had clearly continued to grow while the rest of her shriveled.” Anything’s better than continued life in an orphanage. Yes, Madame Z is a bit odd, but Mary is willing to overlook her eccentricities. The home Madame Z takes Mary to is also odd. It’s located not far from Iris where “save for a few ordinary establishments such as a hotel and bank, the town was filled with storefronts that advertised the occult—from mind reading to magic to communicating with the dead.”

The novel has foreshadowing galore: Madame Z wants to fatten Mary up; Mary discovers she’s not the first girl to be adopted by Madame Z, though none of the previous adoptees remain; work gets done in Madame Z’s house as if by magic; there’s also the floor-to-ceiling brick over in the kitchen.

Mary and her new friend Jacob need to uncover the truth about Madame Z, and about the town of Iris, before it’s too late. Which of the town’s magical residents are the real thing, which are frauds? Can Mary and Jacob get the help they need before Madame Z gets hungry? Why can’t Mary get into the door by the staircase? (When she tries, the lock bites her finger!)

The Door by the Staircase‘s mix of terror and humor should prove a real delight for grade school aged readers.

January 04 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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