First Impressions, by Charlie Lovett

First Impressions
Last year, Charlie Lovett gave us an exciting (for bibliophiles) tale of literary discovery and skullduggery in The Bookman's Tale. Lovett's back with story about the beginnings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in First Impressions. This book is going to piss off a lot of Austenites (until they get the to the resolution, anyway).

Sophie Collingwood grew up in a grand country house with a magnificent library—that she wasn't allowed to use. It was a cruel torment for a born bookworm. Her only joy was to visit her uncle in London. Bertram's books all had their own stories about where they came from and what was going on in his life when he read them. Bertram taught her to care for books and hunt down treasures and understand primary sources. It's only fitting that she would grow up and work at an Oxford University library. When he dies, it's a shock. Sophie just can't believe that it was an accident. And when Bertram's library disappears, Sophie is doubly devastated.

Sophie investigates what really happened to Bertram and his library. Meanwhile, Lovett tells a story of Jane Austen and a curate named Richard Mansfield. The elderly writer of allegories and instructive stories. With Mansfield's encouragement, Jane revises Elinor and Marianne, later Sense and Sensibility. Mansfield also inspires a small novel that Jane initially calls First Impressions. Over the years, that small epistolary novel will grow into the Pride and Prejudice we all know and love today.

Near the beginning of the book, Sophie gets a job in a rare bookshop run by one of her uncle's friends. One of her first tasks is to find a copy of Mansfield's extremely rare second edition of allegories. Sophie is threatened and hounded as she tries to track down the book. Her original investigation into what happened to Bertram is hijacked when some documentary evidence hints that Jane might have stolen the idea for First Impressions from Mansfield. This is the part that Austen fans will hate, because Lovett lets this accusation linger for a long time before the book resolves itself.

I had some qualms about this book as I read it. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bookman's Tale, but the relationship between (fictional) Jane and Mansfield bothered me—especially with the accusation of plagiarism hanging around. In 1796, when Jane first started writing First Impressions, Jane was only 21. She was still writing epistolary novels and hadn't come into her own as a writer. Still, I often think of her as a kind of literary Athena; I rarely think about how Jane became Jane Austen. When the plot hinted that she might have stolen a story, I was livid. And the idea that Jane needed a mentor and collaborator bothered me, especially when Lovett revealed Mansfield to be such a poor writer himself. The eighteenth century parts of the book were wobbly. Then when Lovett adds a pair of love interests for Sophie that mirror Darcy and Wickham, his First Impressions starts to feel overstuffed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 October 2014.


Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder
After reading so much historical fiction, it felt strange to dip back into the realm of fantasy. Instead of Victorian or post-war manners, I got dragons. Instead of lengthy descriptions of architecture or clothing, there were descriptions of magic systems and non-human sentient species. On top of all that, Chris Evan's Of Bone and Thunder doesn't sound—at first blush—like a book that would attract my attention. Still, how can you pass up a book that was billed as Vietnam with dragons?

Whatever universe you're in, war is hell. For the various narrators of Of Bone and Thunder (the grunt, the spy, and the flyer), the war against the Forest Collective is a disaster. No one really knows what they're fighting for. The enemy are everywhere. The landscape is a horror of jungle and heat. Even after the king who ordered the war dies, they fight on because no one in command is willing to admit defeat.

Of Bone and Thunder is divided into three parts. In the first, we get the lay of the land like a new soldier. In the second, things get worse for everyone. In the third, things really go to hell as the Forest Collective goes all out against the invaders. Evans somehow manages to raise your sympathy for the narrators, but not for the war they're fighting. As I read, I worried that Jawm and Vorley and Carny might not make it to the end of the page—but I wasn't rooting for them to win the war.

The advertising for this book was entirely accurate. There are many events and character types that are direct analogs for things that happened during the Vietnam War. I was a little bothered that I could see them so easily at first. The analogs struck me as cliché. But after a few chapters, I was interested to see what Evans was doing with the familiar events and characters by porting them into his fantasy world. While it's not entirely original, Of Bone and Thunder is far from cliché. If you like military history or war novels and you like fantasy, this book will be perfect for you.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 14 October 2014.

You Can't Handle this Book

I had way too much fun at the ad shoot.
During Banned Books Week, the libraries I have worked for have created a police-tape bedecked display and that's pretty much it. Once, I got to run a banned book reading group, but hardly anyone showed up. This year was different. This year, I got to present at my university's ethics awareness week*.

It was refreshing to talk to people outside the library about what Banned Books Week is really supposed to be about—and clarify what librarians mean when we're talking about "celebrating" BBW. I got to remind people that the whole event is really about protecting intellectual freedom. As librarians and intellectual freedom advocates see it, intellectual freedom is the right to pursue your curiosity wherever it takes you...and then come back and tell the rest of us about it.

The best part was the discussion at the end. My "lecture" ended after about 30 minutes, to leave time for the audience to respond. I always get a bit nervous when I present before faculty; I always worry that one of them will raise the bullshit flag on me. But there was a solid back and forth about parents and overprotectiveness and chilling effects. Then the discussion continued out into the hall after we gave up the lecture hall to the next presentation.

As I did the research for "You Can't Handle This Book," I felt that talking about intellectual freedom and censorship has become even more important. I had to limit my search to instances in just the past 12 months. My bibliography is huge enough as it is. There have been so many incidents in the past year, from elementary school libraries to public libraries to middle and high school libraries to colleges. It was disheartening to see so many. (It didn't help that a friend sent me a link to this story from The Los Angeles Register about yet another banning for John Green's The Fault in Our Stars that happened on September 23. Books aren't even safe during Banned Books Week anymore.

I ended my session with an exhortation to the audience to read irresponsibly. I hope they do.


* Ironically, I got on the roster by working connections. 


Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

Why aren't people talking about Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox? There's so much crammed into this short book that I want to read it again even though I just finished it. The book is so good that critics should have been gushing like Twi-hards over it.

Mr. Fox
St. John Fox is a not a nice man. He's hard on his wives. He kills his female characters left and right. He doesn't have close friends. The only person who will really talk to him is not actually real. You see, St. John made up Mary Foxe. For years, she's been his muse but now even Mary is fed up with him. She can't stand to see another female character die on a page for no reason. So she challenges him. As if this wasn't weird enough, Mr. Fox gets even weirder from here.

Mr. Fox is the kind of book that I used to have no patience for. It's unabashedly experimental. There were places that I had no idea what the hell was going on. St. John and Mary get into each other's heads and into each other's stories. They wrestle for control. The pronoun "I" is used interchangeably between the two of them. You can't rush through Mr. Fox, because it's hard to tell what's real and what's just a story.

What helped me get through the book and reach an interpretation* were the symbols and folklore motifs that Oyeyemi scattered through the shared stories. Foxgloves are everywhere. Reynard shows up frequently and Bluebeard's name gets dropped. As Mary tries to rehabilitate St. John the serial killing author, their stories highlight the problems with gender roles, the power of stories to tell truth, about the need for humans to find partners, about the flexibility of the mind.

It's funny that I read Mr. Fox after listening to the latest episode of Dear Book Nerd. In episode 19, one of Rita Meade's questions concerns a philosophy professor who dismissed fiction as lies. As I listened to Meade and her guest overcome their outrage and answer the professor's charge, I wanted to chime in and say 1) even Plato told stories and 2) even though a work of fiction isn't true, it contains truths. Mr. Fox is a perfect example of the ability of fiction to help us confront uncomfortable facts and truths and work through our problems.


* Because if any book could support multiple interpretations, it's Mr. Fox.


Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music
Truth is stranger than fiction—at least, it contains the seeds of something stranger than fiction. As I read Emma Donoghue's stunning Frog Music, I was enjoying it because it was a well-crafted work of mystery and historical fiction. I had no idea that the story was based on real people and history until I read Donoghue's notes at the end of the book. Now I have to wonder if Donoghue really didn't solve a 140 year old murder.

Frog Music opens dramatically. Blanche Beunon, danseuse and prostitute, has just leaned over to remove a stubborn gaiter from her leg when gunfire rings out. She is wounded by flying glass from the broken window, but the bullets killed her companion, Jenny Bonnet. Jenny was an eccentric who lied about nearly every detail of her past and preferred to dress in men's clothing, even though the San Francisco police would regularly fine or jail her for it.

Just after Jenny's murder, Donoghue splits her narrative. Blanche is our narrator for both. In one track, we see Blanche has she meets Jenny and what leads up to the murder. In the other, we follow Blanche as she tries to figure out who killed Jenny and rescue her infant son, P'tit Arthur. We learn about Blanche's lover, Arthure Deneve, and his constant companion, Ernest Girard. We learn that the two men have been funding their vie de bohème with Blanche's money. We learn that Arthur sent away Blanche's son because he interfered with her earning money. But Jenny upsets the balance by asking a few simple questions. Jenny's questions lead Blanche to discover what really happened to P'tit Arthur. He'd been placed in a notorious "baby farm," The knowledge that her son nearly died of neglect and that it was partly her fault drives Blanche to try to reform herself. This does not go over well with Arthur.

Sex plays a big role in Frog Music, but not in the way you might expect. Jenny and Blanche are not draw together because they are lesbians. Blanche is drawn to Jenny's freedom. I suspect the Jenny is drawn to Blanche because Blanche reminds her of what she used to be. Rather, sex plays a role because Blanche is frequently berated or exploited because of her sexuality. She likes sex. She likes sex a lot. And in the nineteenth century, there's really no place for a woman who is known to enjoy sex. You may not look to a novel set in the 1870s to have much to say about contemporary society, but there's still a lot of censure towards sexual women in our time.

I was enthralled by Frog Music. The characters are so richly drawn, a blend of historical fact and Donoghue's fictional polish. Even the secondary and tertiary characters shine with life. I had no problem imagining them carrying on after the last chapter. And the setting! Donoghue does marvels in resurrecting the San Francisco of 1876. The city hums with people bustling and hustling. (In the author's notes, Donoghue writes that many of the places in Frog Music no longer exist, having been destroyed by earthquake, fire, or time.) This book is simply incredible.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests
Frances Wray and her mother have been sliding down the social ladder since the end of World War I. The Wray boys were killed in combat. The father died shortly after, leaving huge debts and bad investments. The Wray women have economized as much as they can but, their only choice at this point is to accept lodgers (called "paying guests" to save face). The Barbers arrive one summer day. By the time the summer is out, Frances will see love and death and legal drama and misfortune in Sarah Waters' The Paying Guests.

When the Barbers first move, Frances resents them but is determined to cope in her version of British stiff-upper-lip/martyrdom. Mrs. Barber, Lilian, quickly overdecorates their rooms with knickknacks. Mr. Barber, known as Len, always seems to have a double entendre on his lips and hangs around underfoot. But after a few weeks, Frances starts to develop a protective kind of friendship with Lilian. Lilian attracts eyes wherever she goes, seeming resigned to male attention until France tells off a man who followed them around the park one day. Even if you're not familiar with Waters' novels, you can soon tell that there's something more in Frances' protectiveness. Frances has fallen in love with Lilian.

Years before The Paying Guests begins, Frances was caught having an affair with another girl. France gave her up to sooth her family and has resigned herself to caring for her mother and the Wray house indefinitely. Her sudden passion for Lilian—and Lilian's reciprocation of that passion—brings her back to life. Naturally, the course of true love can never run smooth. Just as Frances and Lilian are plotting how to leave Len Barber, Lilian finds herself pregnant. Then Len is found dead in the alley behind the house. Waters tells you exactly what happens. The only mystery is whether Frances and Lilian's love will survive the literal and metaphorical trials that follow.

The best thing about this book is the setting. Waters' lives up to her reputation for scrupulous research. The Paying Guests feels like 1922. The characters are not entirely sympathetic, though they are very interesting. Even if one can't bond with a character, there's still the setting to draw you in. Waters' is very good about sketching backstory without belaboring a reader with exposition, so it's very easy to believe that her characters might actually be real people.

I won't say too much about the ending for fear of ruining it, but I will say that the ending is perfect and brave.


More bookish podcasts

This year, I have indulged my interest in all things bookish by seeking out entertaining book podcasts. Here are three new podcasts I've recently started to follow and recommend to other fans of the book.

Dead Authors Podcast

In this podcast, time-traveling science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells (as played by Paul F. Tompkins) interviews a literary giant from the past (played by comedians and improv players, for the most part). The interviews are uproariously inappropriate, but show good research as "Wells" probes his guests about their early lives or themes. The actors arrive in costume. (Some bring their own drink. A lot of writers were drinkers.) The trick, I imagine, is trying not to break character.

Some of my favorite shows featured Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, and Ayn Rand.


Andrew and Craig (whose surnames I do not know) have been catching up on the books they should have read by now since 2013. Every week, one of them reads a book and the other asks questions about it. Inevitably, they crack each other up—which always makes me laugh, because I think it's hilarious when guys giggle. Unlike the other podcasts in this roundup, Overdue is a podcast by and for readers. Andrew and Craig are not professional book critics. Their response to books is honest and unpretentious.

You can hear me (me!) get a shout out at the end of Episode 77.

Tea and Jeopardy

"There's always time for a nice cup of tea and a spot of mild peril..."

I just discovered this one, so I'm still listening to the archive. I found this one because I'm a huge fan of N.K. Jemisin—to the point that I've been stalking following her on Twitter. In Tea and Jeopardy, Emma Newman travels through space in her tea lair and interviews fantasy and science fiction authors. It's silly and wonderful at the same time. (Silliness is underappreciated.) Ms. Newman has interviewed some of my favorite authors, including Mary Robinette Kowal, Lauren Beukes, and Paul Cornell,

The Secrets of Life and Death, by Rebecca Alexander

The Secrets of Life and Death
Jackdaw Hammond has been living on borrowed time for more than a decade. Now she's trying to help another girl avoid her own untimely fate. In addition to this story, Rebecca Alexander also gives us another tale of Elizabeth Báthory in The Secrets of Life and Death.

The Secrets of Life and Death is narrated by three people. Felix Guichard is an expert in religions. He was called in when a dead girl was discovered with esoteric symbols written all over her. This girl lead him to Jackdaw, a mostly mysterious woman who eventually clues him into what's going on. The symbols on the dead girl can keep people alive after they're supposed to be dead. Together, they learn that "borrowed timers," also called revenants, are being hunted by a terrifying witch and by the Catholic Inquisition. The third narrator is Edward Kelley (making yet another fictional appearance), who tells the story of how he and Doctor John Dee used magic to preserve the life of Elizabeth Báthory in 1585.

Kelley and Dee's part of the story was, to be honest, better than the story Jackdaw and Felix give us. I would have devoured a book that was just Kelley and Dee and Báthory. It's richer in detail. Comparatively, Jackdaw and Felix's story feels too easy and too shallow. Kelley and Dee discover the infernally-inspired life-extension magic; Jackdaw and Felix just copy what they found in Kelley's surviving papers. Jackdaw and Felix's final confrontation with the Big Bad succeeds more by luck than skill. Their part of the book also suffers by being hobbled with a clumsy love story.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 7 October 2014.


World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters

If you haven't read the first two books in this series, The Last Policeman and Countdown City, I strongly recommend that you don't read this review. It's going to be hard enough for me not to include spoilers as it is without worrying about spoiling the rest of the series for people who, inexplicably, haven't gotten on this wagon yet.

World of Trouble
World of Trouble is a bleak book. Only a few vestiges of civilization remain. Some people are seeing the world out by partying. Others are digging in, literally, to create doomsday bunkers. Most people would rather shoot Palace than help him out. Still, Palace continues his self appointed quest to rescue his sister Nico, there is just a week before a planet-killing asteroid is going to strike Indonesia.

Nico had joined a gang of desperate crusaders in trying to save the world from Maia, the asteroid. But something has gone wrong with their plan and the last Palace knew, she was heading for somewhere in Ohio. Along with his faithful dog, Houdini, and a thief with ulterior motives, Palace bikes west from his safe haven at Police House.

Once he arrives in Rotary, Ohio, Palace comes across a crime scene. There's blood in the sink at the police station and no one around. Cortez, the thief, is ready to pack it in, but Palace is nothing if not dogged. He falls back on his abbreviated police training to run the scene and find out what happened because he just knows that Nico was there. And then the pair find a woman with her throat cut in the woods. Surprisingly, she's not dead, but she's not ready to talk about what happened. On top of this mystery, Palace and Cortez also find evidence that Nico's group has dug into their own bunker and sealed themselves in below a slab of concrete. Before the world ends, Palace just has to find out what happened to Nico and make sure she's safe—one last time.

World of Trouble is a fast read. It was over almost before I'd had a chance to sink in. As I read it, I was terrified that Winters would give us a St. Elsewhere-style ending. And I really didn't want to throw my iPad across the room if that happened. I should have had more faith because Winters is a braver writer than that. The other thought that occurred to me as I read World of Trouble was that Winters has given us science fiction and fantasy folks a logotherapy tale of our own. Palace's life at the world has meaning because he gave it meaning. He's the last policeman, while everyone else abandons their post or their humanity or their hope. This trilogy is unforgettable.

My only regret now is that the book wasn't longer. I wasn't ready to see the last of Henry Palace.


Cover Story: HHhH, by Laurent Binet

Once again, the British and American editions of a book have radically different covers. And, as usual, the British cover is better. (At least, I think it's better.)

Here is the British cover of HHhH, by Laurent Binet, the one I used in my review of the book:

This cover takes a portrait of Reinhard Heydrich, the subject of the book and the target of Operation Anthropoid, and blurs his face. The cover says to me how impossible it is to clearly see the past. Binet agonizes about getting the story right. We can fill in a lot of details with the historic record, but we can't really know the people behind the history.

The blurring also makes Heydrich just that much more sinister—to me at least. This cover fits the story much better than the American one.

Speaking of, here it is:

This cover removes Heydrich as the focus. The parachutists—no doubt representing the assassins, Gabčik and Kubiš—are tiny figures. The letters of the title are written in what makes me think of Soviet futurism. You have to know what the letters mean in order to catch the meaning. (HHhH stands for "Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich": Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.) The letters made me think of buildings—but not the medieval buildings of Prague, where the novel/not-novel takes place.

I'm probably over thinking this, but I tend to do that about artwork. I blame the fact that I was raised by an art history major.

In One Person, by John Irving

John Irving's In One Person is another book I would not have picked up, let alone read, if it weren't for the Nameless Book Group.

In One Person
Can one person ever make us completely happy*? William Abbott, the protagonist of In One Person by John Irving, has a type, but that's as far as he can commit. His problem is that no one else—especially not members of his family—can accept that he's attracted to both men and women. His family disapproves of his lovers. His male lovers don't think he's all that into men. His female lovers think he'll leave him for a man. On top of all this, Bill has an unfortunate habit of saying the worst possible things to his loves at the worst possible moments**.

Bill tells his life story in a recursive fashion. If you read In One Person over the course of three days, like I did, you'll notice that dialog and themes are repeated verbatim. Bill was born in First Sister, Vermont under a cloud. For the longest time, all Bill knew about his disappeared father was that he was caught kissing someone else and that he was a cryptographer during World War II. Bill's family is interesting enough on its own. His grandfather, Harry, is a hoot. Harry's cross-dressing antics on stage in the town's amateur dramatic troupe are a sore spot for the women in the Winthrop-Marshall-Dean-Abbott clan. When Bill is caught wearing his girlfriend's (beard) bra and falls in love with the town's transgender librarian, no one is very happy with him. Bill is sent to the school psychologist, but he is gleefully unrepentant about his sexuality.

Because this is a book club selection, I took copious notes about Bill's psychosexual dramas. It was fun to psychoanalyze Bill from the comfort of my own couch. There's a lot here for the group to talk about. The first two thirds of In One Person are all about Bill. He learns more about his past before charging out into the world. He doesn't change so much as the world around him. What struck me about Bill, in comparison to the not heterosexual characters around him, was that he is always very clear about what he is attracted to. He doesn't struggle nearly as much as the homosexual and transgender characters that populate this book.

In the last third of In One Person, Bill gives way to telling us what happened to the people he met at the all-boys private school he attended. At this point, I wondered what an incredible novel In One Person could have been if Miss Frost, the librarian, or Jacques Kittredge, one of Bill's early crushes, had been the protagonist. Not that this isn't a good book (much better than I was expecting), but I would have loved to read more about Miss Frost.

This leads me to what bothered me about In One Person. What interests Bill about his own life and history is not what interested me. He glosses over his relationships and large parts of his life to stick to the repeated theme of not belonging to either the heterosexual or the homosexual camp. Further, Bill doesn't change much. The characters around him go on incredible journeys, but Irving doesn't let us see those.


* Yes, if that person is Jaime Fraser.

** Relationship Pro Tip: Never compare your girlfriend's vagina to a ballroom, especially when you've just had sex.


HHhH, by Laurent Binet

Literary critics will tell you that even nonfiction can be considered a kind of fiction. The author chooses what the share and what to hide. They create a story arc to engage their readers. Laurent Binet’s HHhH* isn’t unusual, considered in that light. Still, any reader of historical nonfiction would be surprised by the extent that Binet embeds himself in the story of Operation Anthropoid and how he agonizes over what to include and exclude.

On May 27, 1942, three men planned to kill the Nazi “protector” of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Valčik served as the lookout. Jozef Gabčik was supposed to kill him with a Sten gun, but it jammed. Jan Kubiš lobbed a bomb at Heydrich's Mercedes, but didn't kill his target outright. Heydrich later died of septicemia from his shrapnel wounds. Anthropoid succeeded, but only by accident. The Nazi reprisals that followed took the lives of thousands of Czech citizens. The entire village of Lidice was razed and its inhabitants murdered simply because a letter was discovered during the chaotic investigation that followed. The letter had nothing to do with Anthropoid.

This is the nutshell synopsis of Binet's book, but HHhH is history as written by Laurence Sterne. Binet wants to be true to history (I should probably write History here) and to the people who gave their lives to kill a man who was as close to a monster as people ever come. At the beginning of the novel/not-novel, Binet writes:
I devour everything I can find, in every possible language…I learn loads of things, some with only a distant connection to Heydrich, but I tell myself that everything can be useful, that I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit—and the thread of knowledge, once you pull at it, continues unraveling on its own…I write two pages for every thousand I read…I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming dangerous—a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing. (17**) 
These bullet pocks were made during
the firefight between the surviving
members of Anthropoid and other operations
A memorial plaque has been placed above.
Binet does not approach history as a historian, but as a teacher of literature. He is fully aware of the inherent flaws of the format. But he also plays with the freedom that this recognition gives him. Near the end of HHhH, Binet as narrator places himself in the crypt of the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, where the members of Anthropoid were cornered by the SS and killed. (He does this in spite of claiming not to be a character in his own book. By appearing in the first person in HHhH, of course Binet becomes a character.)

I have had to tag HHhH as a work of fiction and nonfiction because that's really what it is. It's about history, but also about the act of writing about history. Binet shares his struggle over how to write this incredible story even as he shares it with his readers. He does spend a lot of time on Heydrich's background and personality, to the detriment of the story's heroes: Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš. (I thought so, anyway.) Binet explains this somewhat by pointing out that there is so much information about Heydrich than there is about the members of Anthropoid and Binet (at least his manifestation in the pages of HHhH) is very worried about getting the facts right.

One would think that at book about writing a book would be terribly boring, but I was anything but bored as I read HHhH. Even as Binet confesses his struggles about his self-appointed task, the incredible story he is telling serves as an example of how important it is to get things right. Anthropoid wasn't just about Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš; it also succeeded because of people that you don't hear about. It succeeded because of other members of the Czech Resistance and their families. Further, Anthropoid happened because of everything else that was happening at the time. At the end (rather, the point where Binet chose to end his narrative), the author/narrator writes:
I know that this story will never truly end for me, that I will always be learning new details relating to the extraordinary story of the assassination attempt on Heydrich on May 27, 1942, by Czechoslovak parachutists sent from London. (326)


* The title is an abbreviation of a old joke. Heydrich was such a useful right hand man to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, that "Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich": Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.

** Quotes are from the 2009 hardcover edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Sam Taylor.


The Darkest Hour, by Tony Schumacher

The Darkest Hour
Since the late 1940s, the phrase "only following orders" has had ominous connotations. And it seemed like Tony Schumacher took this phrase as his inspiration for The Darkest Hour. John Rossett has been following orders for a long time. Then, one day, he snaps and goes rogue. The Darkest Hour is set in just 48, action-packed hours in which Rossett tries to save the life of a Jewish boy in an alternate Britain that was occupied by Germany sometime after the Dunkirk evacuation.

John Rossett was a policeman in London before the war, so it only made sense that he returned to policing after he was released from a prisoner of war camp. He had a fearsome reputation as a soldier. For his actions in France, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and nicknamed the "British Lion." So it's strange that Rossett offers no objections when the SS requisition him and set him to work rounding up London's Jews for transport to Europe. For most of the book, Rossett is shockingly naive about their fate. He believes the news of the concentration camps is just government-in-exile propaganda. His refusal to fight back against the Germans and acquiescence to their orders is, frankly, appalling. I had to push myself to keep reading.

Shortly after the book begins and Rossett has just sent a building full of Jews back to Europe, he discovers young Jacob hiding in a chimney. Rossett finds his lack of conscience shaken and, hours after sending the boy's grandfather to his death, he breaks into the SS prison/police station in order to rescue him. The pair spend the rest of the book running from the Germans, the Resistance, and the Communists. Rossett becomes a super-powered avenging angel. I lost count of the number of people Rossett killed or threatened to kill. It's unbelievable what the former war hero gets up to.

I have to sum this book up by saying it's a thriller dressed up as an alternate history. The premise—if you can stand its repellent implications—is interesting. The action scenes are terrific. But I read most of it with my eyebrows raised in disbelief—and not the kind you want when reading a work of fiction.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 23 September 2014.


The escalating hot sauce cycle of reading good books

I think I'm getting snobbish about books. I've been spoiled in this last year or so when it comes to great books. My to-read and recently read lists are packed with historical fiction and literary fiction but, up until a few years ago, I read fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels almost exclusively. When I've tried to go back, I've found it harder and harder to ignore clumsy writing and less-than-three-dimensional characters. That sort of thing didn't bother me if the plot was good.

Last night, when I finished Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, I felt obscurely disappointed. This was a book critics had gushed over. And it was a great read, don't get me wrong. But I wanted more depth, I suppose. I've been bothered by my reaction ever since. Then an analogy popped into my head that is helping me make sense of it. 

Reading better and better books is like using hotter and hotter hot sauce. After a while, you just can't taste the more mild varieties. You need something spicier. Then that stops satisfying you. Before you know it, you're seriously considering trying a sauce made with bhut jolokia (or whatever the literary equivalent is). 

While I'm reading "better" books, I regret that can't just enjoy fantasy or science fiction or mystery genre novels unless they break the mold in some way. Sometimes, you just want brain candy. But if you've been spoiled, you can't even taste it.

Having written all that, I do realize that I've just whined about a first world bookworm problem. 

What I really worry about is that this escalating hot sauce cycle is leading me to be harsher than I should in my reviews. 


Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

It's been a long time since I've read a book that was pure fantasy but, since the last book I read was a somewhat depressing work of literary historical fiction and I'm also reading the Dickensian epic that is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, I needed something that was pure action as a palate cleanser.

Throne of the Crescent Moon
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood has been a ghul hunter for decades. He's getting too old for this shit. His young assistant, a dervish named Raseed, helps with the fighting but wearies him with his rigid piety. Makhslood would have retired long ago if there were anyone to turn the reins over to, but he's the last honest ghul hunter. Naturally, this is when he stumbles across the biggest evil he's ever encountered. Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fast ride from the very beginning. If Adoulla doesn't have a moment to catch his breath, then neither do you.

It begins with a call for help from the love of Adoulla's life. Then it escalates when Adoulla and Raseed find the sole survivor of a desert tribe looking for revenge. It eventually turns out to be a terrible plot to gain the Khalif's throne. Along the way, there's magic and alkhemists and shapechangers and corruption and virtue and heroism.

The plot of Throne of the Crescent Moon is simple enough to explain, but what made this book such an interesting read for me was the richly described world Ahmed creates. Unlike most fantasy novels, which are grounded firmly in medieval European-like settings, Throne of the Crescent Moon is distinctly influenced by Islam and the Middle East. God has a thousand names and business is only discussed after lots of pleasantries. Not only does Ahmed use this inspiration to create a refreshingly different setting, he uses it to give his characters (especially) Raseed a lot of room to grow as characters. This is an action novel, but it's got some soul, too.


The Two Hotel Francforts, by David Leavitt

The Two Hotel Francforts
Julia Winters does not want to be in Lisbon. But then, in 1940, few of the people who were in Lisbon wanted to be there. After the Nazis invaded Poland, France, Norway, etc., streams of refugees were pouring into the city hoping to catch a ship to America or England. It was always Julia's dream to live in Paris. Her husband, Pete, was more than happy to bring her to Europe. By the time we meet them in David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts, the Winters have just arrived in Lisbon. Julia has been talking about staying in Lisbon rather than leaving on the Manhattan with all the other American ex-patriates. Pete has promised to take her to New York kicking and screaming if he has to. And then one morning, as they have their morning spat and coffee at a local cafe, they meet the Frelengs.

Edward and Iris Freleng have also fled France and are also preparing to travel to New York on the Manhattan. The couples' meet-cute involves a deck of cards and a pair of smashed glasses. Pete and Edward get on well, but Julia is not disposed to make friends. That night, Pete and Edward go out for drinks, have a lot of absinthe, and end up naked on the beach together.

The beginning of The Two Hotel Francforts was remarkably similar to a book I read earlier this year, Ford Madox Ford's novel, The Good Soldier. In that novel, two couples met in Europe. One member of each couple is dependent on the other. One member of each couple has a hidden past. Everyone is lying. The couples' lives tangle together. War is on the horizon. But in The Good Soldier, it was a woman and a man that had an affair. In The Two Hotel Francforts, two men have an affair.

A city full of refugees on a continent at war is a terrible place to conduct an affair. Worse, Edward and Pete have only a week before the Manhattan arrives in Lisbon. In spite of this, Leavitt creates some space for the two lovers to explore their attraction. They have just a little time before their histories and entanglements catch up.

The Two Hotel Francforts is not a true love story. Nor is it, as Modox Ford wrote it in 1915, the saddest story the narrator had ever heard. I have to wonder if Leavitt has read The Good Soldier and, if so, why he didn't acknowledge it in his notes at the end. There are too many similarities to dismiss.