Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Family and Revolution in Egypt

Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, by Yasmine El Rashidi, (Tim Duggan Books, Random House), 192 pages, release date 28 June, 2016

Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer is actually a chronicle of several summers. We see the young woman at the center of the book across three decades: as a child, as a college student, and as an adult. The common threads in her life are boredom, the confusing nature of Egyptian politics and protest, and the secrets within her own family. The novel ends during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Readers sense the hope of this historical moment, but also realize how quickly that hope will fade for many Egyptians.

El Rashidi’s prose is exquisite both in what it communicates and what it withholds. That she can tell such a rich tale in a novel under two hundred pages is a testament to her ability to choose the right word, the right sentence—and to avoid unnecessary embellishment. Chronicle of a Last Summer is, in my estimation, one of the best books released this year, rewarding for its style, its characters, and its historical insight.

July 17 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Melville and Hawthorne and the Making of Moby Dick

The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel, by Mark Beauregard, (Viking), 288 pages, release date 14 June, 2016

Mark Beauregard’s The Whale tells an imagined version of the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. That the two were neighbors and on-again, off-again friends is fact. That the two shared a homoerotic attraction is, if not quite fact, likely. Beauregard imagines the two men in a sort of 1850s “Brokeback Mountain,” with Melville embracing the pair’s shared feelings and Hawthorne denying that these feelings exist. In doing this, Beauregard draws on the actual correspondence between the men, weaving the texts of their letters into his narrative.

This novel is simultaneously heart-breaking and humorous. Melville, who dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, longs for a closeness that Hawthorne is unable to offer. Melville gives himself over completely to his attraction to Hawthorne, pursuing the older writer as he writes the story of Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Melville can be endearing, maddening, even obsessive. Hawthorne’s character is less well-developed, though Beauregard does a capable job of painting a picture of Hawthorne that makes Melville’s attraction understandable.

Reading Beauregard’s version of these two tales—one of unfulfilled love, the other of the creation of a ground-breaking novel—is a pleasure to read, both perceptive and believable. It also provides a lively portrait of the American literary scene and the midpoint of the 19th Century.

July 15 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Self-Discovery in 1980

Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss, (Gallery/Scout Press, Simon & Schuster), 336 pages, release date 5 April, 2016.

Tuesday Nights in 1980 was released in April, so you may not find it on the “New Fiction” table of your local independent bookstore, but it’s definitely worth seeking out on the shelves. This is a character-driven novel—though there’s plenty of plot as well. An art critic, an artist, and a young woman new to New York City (the novel’s setting) are gradually drawn together through connections of both affection and conflict. As we get to know these characters, they are also getting to know themselves, which makes for a satisfying, voyage of discovery. This is Molly Prentiss’ first novel, and I hope there will be many more.

If you’re interested in art, if you’re interested in character-driven fiction, in you’re interested in reflecting on life in the 80s, this is a book you should move to the top of your to-read list.

July 13 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Mystery of Murder and Prejudice Set in Elizabethan England and Inspired by Fact

Frobisher’s Savage: An Elizabethan Murder Mystery, by Leonard Tourney, (Endeavor Press), 245 pages, release date 1 April, 2016

In May, I reviewed Leonard Tourney’s The Player’s Boy Is Dead, a murder mystery set in Elizabethan England. That book was interesting, but not completely successful. Frobisher’s Savage is another volume in Tourney’s series and offers a more satisfying tale than did The Player’s Boy Is Dead.

Frobisher’s Savage has its root in fact: in 1576, explorer Martin Frobisher returned to England from a voyage in which he claimed he has reached Cathay (he’d actually reached Canada). As proofs of his success he brought back evidence both mineral and human—black rocks that he claimed contained gold and a “savage” he named Adam Nemo.

Tourney’s mystery places Nemo as a servant on a country estate and provides him with a friend, Nicholas, a deaf-mute boy living on a nearby farm. When Nicholas’s parents and two of his siblings are murdered, suspicion quickly comes to rest on these two outsiders. Neither Nemo nor Nicholas has a real motive, but that is less important that the fact of their differences from the local population.

The plotting of this novel is solid, but it’s the characters and their perceptions of one another that stand out. Tourney’s imagined Nemo is a fascinating character, a man who has had little control over the events of his own life and who cannot remember much of his own story pre-England. If you’re curious about social and racial hierarchies in Elizabethan England, you will find this title a thought-provoking read.

July 10 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Valuable Addition to Tudor Biography

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas, by Alison Weir, (Ballentine Books), 576 pages, release date 12 January, 2016

For readers of Tudor history, a new title by Alison Weir is always welcome. She has a knack for writing prose that is both engaging and densely packed with information. Her latest subject, Lady Margaret Douglas, usually appears in Tudor histories as a secondary character, an endlessly scheming irritant with whom Elizabeth I must deal repeatedly during her reign.

A niece of Henry VIII, conceived in Scotland, but born in England, Lady Margaret had a strong claim to the English throne—particularly in the minds of those who viewed Elizabeth I as a bastard and who resented Eliabeth’s harsh treatment of English Catholics. Lady Margaret was quite proud of her pedigree and was determined to rise to the royal position she felt she deserved.

Lady Margaret never ruled, but she managed to wed her son, Lord Darnley, to Mary Queen of Scots and that marriage produced a son, Scotland’s James VI. Lady Margaret outlived Darnley and fought to maintain influence over her grandson, but with little success.

Ultimately, however, Lady Douglas achieved her ambition. Her grandson King James VI and I of Scotland and England inherited the crown from Elizabeth I. It is to her, not to Elizabeth, that subsequent English rulers trace their ancestry.

Weir’s biography gives readers a chance to view Lady Margaret’s life in terms of her own goals, a new view of a character usually depicted in terms of her relationships to other, better known, Tudor figures. If you haven’t yet read this title (I confess I had to wait to read it until I finished my academic year and could devote the necessary time to Lady Margaret) and you enjoy reading Tudor history, move this title to the top of your reading list.

July 08 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Moments with a Mermaid

The Mermaid Girl: A Story, by Erika Swyler, (St. Martin’s Press), 33 pages print length—sold as an electronic single, release date 3 May, 2016

This time last year, I was reading Erika Swyler’s first novel, The Book of Speculation, savoring its mix of the magical and the everyday. In May, when St. Martin’s released Swyler’s The Mermaid Girl as an electronic single, I welcomed the opportunity to settle back into the kind of world Swyler creates. The problem was that The Mermaid Girl didn’t last long enough to allow for settling in. The main character was interesting—melancholy, torn between family life and her former live as a carnival mermaid—but the story felt more like a deleted chapter from The Book of Speculation than like a work in its own right. If you’ve already read The Book of Speculation and are waiting for Swyler’s next novel, The Mermaid Girl can provide you with a little something to tide you over. If you haven’t read The Book of Speculation, start with that more fully fleshed work, then move on to The Mermaid Girl if you find yourself wanting more afterwards.

July 06 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

You Are Being Watched

I Am No One: A Novel,  by Patrick Flanery, (Tim Duggan Books, Random House), 352 pages, release date 5 July, 2016

I Am No One is one of those novels with lots of promise that never quite manages to live up to that promise. That said, it’s still an enjoyable read—but one keeps wondering what more the writer might have done with it.

Patrick Flanery grounds this novel in post-9/11 New York. Jeremy O’Keefe, a competent, but not brilliant, academic left the U.S. for a position in Britain shortly after the twin towers fell. A decade later, O’Keefe finds himself in the U.S. once more with a position at New York University.

Flanery imbeds O’Keefe in a creepy, Big Brother-like predicament: O’Keefe receives a box from an unknown sender containing computer print outs tracking years of his internet use. Not long after, another box, with more internet data, arrives. This is followed by a third box containing years of O’Keefe’s phone records. O’Keefe’s situation is at once remarkable, but all-too-possible in our era of increasingly intrusive homeland security measures.

Then, there’s the creepy young man O’Keefe keeps running into. Who is he? Is he deliberately staging their encounters? What relationship might there be between his vaguely defined corporate IT work and the surveillance O’Keefe finds himself under?

The novel comes to a conclusion that’s satisfying, but not remarkable. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that the secondary characters—particularly O’Keefe’s lover, a former student raised in Egypt—aren’t all fully developed. Readers understand why O’Keefe loves her, buy they never really understand what has drawn her to O’Keefe.

If you like mood pieces, this novel will provide a satisfying read. Unfortunately, it’s not the full-fleshed, ominous portrait of present-day America that it might have been.

July 05 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Coney Island Plague

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet: A Novel, by H. P. Wood, (Sourcebooks Landmark), 368 pages, release date 7 June, 2016

Like most readers, I’ve developed a list of very specific genres that are of particular interest to me. Not genres like historical fiction, but genres like historical fiction dealing with religious conflict in Elizabethan England or complicated mysteries with books at their center that also include magical realism. Another of these ultra-specific genres is explorations of class and individual opportunity set on Coney Island near the turn of the 20th Century. The most recent top-notch addition to this genre is H. P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which I’m putting on my shelves next to Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels (you can find reviews of these two titles on this blog).

In Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet H. P. Wood creates a world that is distressingly real and simultaneously infused with just a touch of magical realism. Wood’s Coney Island is highly stratified: there are the wealthy business owners, the more established performers and venues, and a highly marginalized community of small-time performers and oddities.

Two new arrivals on the island set this novel in motion: one is Kitty Armstrong, from a wealthy English family, whose mother has disappeared during their first day on the island, and the plague. Yes, that plague. Wood uses the San Francisco plague epidemic of 1900-1904 and the epidemic in Honolulu that occurred during the same period as inspiration. The wealthy see that Coney Island becomes quarantined, abandoning the vulnerable to attempt to live out the epidemic with limited resources and almost no health care.

Kitty is befriended by a con man, who leads her to Magruder’s where she becomes part of an eclectic community: the legless African American man who runs Magruder’s, the youngster who won’t speak a word aside from his own unusual name and who has an obsessive fondness for fleas and flea circuses, an eccentric experimental scientist, a robot boy who is also an artist, a character who is half male half female divided neatly down the middle, the heir of a senator who is a major Coney Island business owner—the list goes on and on. Wood does an admirable job of bringing these characters together and gradually building relationships among them that are both affectionate and volatile. This isn’t a cast of gutter angels, rather it’s a group of gutter and high society individuals, most of whom are both a bit angel and a bit devil.

I’d recommend starting Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet on a Friday evening. You’ll need to have Saturday and Sunday free because once you begin reading, you won’t want to put this book down.

June 07 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Birder, A Murder

A Cast of Falcons: A Birder Murder Mystery, by Steve Burrows, (Dundurn), 384 pages, release date 31 May, 2016

A Cast of Falcons is Steve Burrow’s third “Birder Murder Mystery,” and they just keep getting better. I’ve reached the point as a reader where I devour each title in this series as it appears and then wait anxiously for the next.

Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune is both investigator and birder, a brilliant, misleadingly placid figure, who is always a step ahead of his cohorts. His back story—originally from Canada, now working in Saltmarsh in Norfolk, a “successful” case that led to the death on one innocent and the rescue of another, and a brother on the other side of the law—is gradually revealed by Burrows.

In this volume Jejeune investigates a pair of seemingly unrelated murders: one of a Scottish birder, the other of a climate change scientist, whose work was underwritten by a family whose wealth comes from oil. A prize offered for a successful method of clearing oil spills may or may not be motivating the murderer.

If you haven’t discovered this series yet, you need to. If you have, like me you’ll race through this title and be eager for more.

May 31 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Class and Murder in Shakespeare’s England

The Players’ Boy Is Dead: A Shakespearian Murder Mystery, by Leonard Tourney, (Endeavour Press), 169 pages, release date 24 March, 2016

The Players’ Boy Is Dead (note that Shakespeare does not play a significant role in this book despite its subtitle) is an historical mystery that works reasonably well in both categories, but never truly captivates. It kept me reading, but when I’d finished, I could put it aside easily. It’s not the sort of book that lingers.

Clothier Matthew Stock serves as village Constable, reporting to Magistrate Sir Henry Saltmarsh. But what is Stock to do when the murders start piling up and the evidence points to Lord Saltmarsh himself? First, a boy traveling with a group of players, taking the female roles, is found murdered. Then, there’s a suspicious suicide. This is followed by a roadside accident that may not have been an accidental at all.

The Players’ Boy Is Dead illustrates some interesting facets of life at the turn of the 18th Century. Tourney shows us a class-bound society, where changes in status are both difficult and dangerous. He offers a potentially engaging mystery, but gives readers few clues, so that the resolution feels as if it comes by happenstance as much as anything else. The most interesting aspect of the novel is its depictions of the theater scene in London and rural England.

If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you’ll find diversion in this title, but it’s not apt to prove satisfactory for those not already committed to the genre.

May 17 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Next »