5.31.2014

My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life
You wouldn't expect, looking at her early life, that Ann Muldoon Jones would be able to become a successful physician and millionaire. She was half an orphan, taking care of her younger sister and brother because her washerwoman mother had been brutally injured on the job. She and her siblings are winkled away from their mother by a smooth talking children's aide society founder. They are sent to Illinois to be adopted almost before you can catch your breath. From that ignoble beginning, we see Ann (known as "Axie") grow to become Madame DeBeausacq in Kate Manning's My Notorious Life.

The initial chapters of My Notorious Life let you know that even at the height of her success, events are conspiring against her. A woman has committed suicide in Axie's bathtub and Axie quickly moves to swap identities with her and escape the long arm of the law. Manning then takes us back, to when Axie was a thirteen-year-old trying to keep her family together. Misfortune piles upon misfortune until Axie fetches up at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Evans. Mrs. Evans treats the female patients for what are euphemistically known in the Victorian era as "women's complaints." Axie trains under her and learns to deliver babies, make "medicines" that would be banned by the FDA in a heartbeat, and how to (again euphemistically) "unblock" uterine "obstructions."

Mrs. Lohman arrested by Anthony
Comstock, February 23, 1878 issue of 
The New York Illustrated Times.
Axie finds love and has a family. She and her husband, Charlie, grow a business selling fertility and contraception pills before she branches to becoming a midwife and abortionist. Axie is, according to the author's note at the end, based on Madame Restell, Ann Trow Lohman. Axie lost her mother to a botched delivery when no midwife could be found. The shock and horror of her mother's death spurred her to help pregnant women however she could. Her means of helping involved teaching family planning and performing abortions for women who had so many children they were being worn down. Of course, Victorian mores and laws were against her. Axie was able to work undisturbed so long because no one was enforcing the laws. At least, she is undisturbed until postal inspector Anthony Comstock brought his crusade against immorality to her front door. Manning includes many details of Lohman's life in her story about Axie. She includes the accusations of murder against the midwife, the multiple abortions for individual patients, and her immense wealth.

My Notorious Life uses a real story from the past to highlight the fact that our society is still torn on the issues of women's reproduction. Axie is hounded by (male) police officers, judges, and journalists. A few women snub her socially, but its mostly men that try to put Axie out of business. It's easy to read Axie as a women's hero. (I certainly see her as one. I daresay the history was more complicated.) My Notorious Life is a good book if you're inclined to be liberal about women's reproductive rights. If you're not, well, there aren't many people to root for in this book if you're not pro-choice.

5.27.2014

Book blurbs; Or, you don't have to take my word for it

This is an old story, but the idea of book blurbs has been on my mind lately. A few members of what I've come to think of as my book tribe will take my recommendations based on my word. (Which delights me no end. Thanks, folks!) Giving stacks of books and lists of books to audiences and members of my book tribe made me realize that there's no one that I trust enough to read whatever they give me. I need to know why a particular book will appeal to me. Which brings me to book blurbs. One of the nice things about reading mostly ebooks is that I don't see the blurbs on the covers anymore.

In April, Gary Shteygart wrote a tongue-in-cheek farewell to book blurbing (with a long list of exceptions).
From The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shteyngart.
I'm not sure why but I've always thought that blurbs were insincere. A lot of them seem so hyperbolic I can't help reading them sarcastically. After all, if I had my mind blown by as many books as the blurbers have, I wouldn't have much gray matter left. I suspect that part of the reason I don't trust book blurbs is that the people doing the blurbing have unknown book tastes of their own. Authors tend to read adventurously, and their tastes don't always line up with my own.

I find book reviews and listening to other readers talking about books on podcasts much more helpful in finding something to read. In a review, especially a long one from The New York Times or The New Yorker, includes what the critic liked and didn't like about the book. They provide their own grain (or cup) of salt.

5.26.2014

Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll

Warburg in Rome
David Warburg is an up-and-comer at the U.S. Treasury when he is appointed to head up the War Refugees Board. The Board's pilot project is to rescue 1,000 Jewish refugees to upstate New York. Warburg is not a religious Jew, but he has been wanting to get into the fight since the beginning. James Carroll's Warburg in Rome tells his story. Carroll uses real history to give Warburg's tale a sense of the real post-war tragedy of the ratlines and the struggle of Jews and displaced persons to find a new home.

Warburg arrives in Rome with Father Kevin Deane, the aide to Archbishop Spellman. They strike up a friendship that solidifies when Warburg requisitions a shipment of milk and food for the Red Cross. Carroll broadens his lens as the story progresses, to show what Deane is up to, how Roberto Lehmann created a ratline on orders from Heinrich Himmler, and how Margeurite d'Erasmo grows from Red Cross worker to radical.

At every turn, Warburg, Deane, and d'Erasmo are confronted with lingering anti-Semitism. So many of the people they meet are complicit in war crimes or are so worried about the coming war with the Soviets that they're willing to turn a blind eye in order to score potential allies in the new Europe. Carroll's afterword notes that he stuck as close to real history as possible, which makes this book just that much more depressing.

David Warburg is mentioned in the title, but Warburg in Rome is not just about him. It's about all the other characters in his sphere. At times, they're more interesting than Warburg. Warburg is only conflicted about his past rejections of his Jewish heritage—which he embraces as time passes. Other characters have to square their consciouses about keeping silent or telling devastating truths, or killing a man in retribution for the lives he took during the war or leaving it to the "authorities," whoever they are. Marguerite d'Erasmo and Sister Thomas Aquinas stole the show for me.

For a book about war refugees, very few refugees get any face time in Warburg in Rome. The novel tries to be a thriller most of the time, rather than being an exploration of deep morality and justice. This is a big flaw, I think. If you read Warburg as a thriller, you'll be fine. If you want something better, read Frederick Forsyth's The Odessa File.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 1 July 2014.

5.25.2014

Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King
Joe Abercrombie takes us back to his violent world of politics and nearly constant warfare in Half a King. Gettland is one of many kingdoms around the Shattered Sea. Yarvi, the second son of Gettland's king, never expected to be king. He was training to be a minister, almost ready to pass the last test and receive his posting. When his father and brother are killed in battle with Grom-gil-Gorm, king of Vansterland, Yarvi is pushed to take the Black Chair by his mother.

Yarvi is not a popular choice. Even if a birth defect hadn't taken his left hand, the fact that he is not a big, burly bruiser like the rest of the Gettlanders makes everyone around him doubt him. His uncle and mother push him to declare war against Grom-gil-Gorm for revenge and to show everyone that he's not weak. He agrees, against his better judgment, but swears an impressive oath to kill his father and brother's murderers. The course of revenge never runs smoothly. After the first skirmish, Yarvi's uncle, Odem, tries to have Yarvi killed. He manages to escape, right into the freezing sea. His luck gets worse. Yarvi is sold into slavery to a privateer and forced to row until he dies.

Yarvi does manage to turn his minister training to his advantage. He convinces his owner to unchain himself from the oars and make himself useful as a storekeeper. He makes an ally and hatches a plan to escape. The plan goes awry, of course, and Yarvi ends up trekking across frozen north with his motley band of ex-slaves. He convinces them to head for Thorlby, his capital, after telling them his story.

Half a King is a great story, well built and well paced. Abercrombie sprinkles the story with twists and turns, not that you need them to keep interested in Yarvi's tale. He grows from a fearful boy to a "deep-cunning man." The simple tale of revenge grows, too, into something much more complicated and realistic.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 15 July 2014.

5.21.2014

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

At last, a popular book that lived up to the hype!

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is narrated in alternating chapters by Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot-Dunne. Nick begins by telling us that his wife of five years has disappeared on their anniversary. Amy's diary fills us in on how they met in New York. At the halfway point, Amy herself tells us the real story.

Nick and Amy were writers in New York. Nick wrote for a magazine. Amy wrote personality quizzes. When the recession hit, they both lost their jobs. Then Amy's parents asked for her trust fund back to cover their investment losses. They moved back to Nick's hometown in Carthage (the other one), Missouri to care for his terminally ill mother and try to start over. And then Amy goes missing. As if things weren't bad enough for Nick, evidence starts to turn up that makes it look like Nick did terrible things during the year before the disappearance. By the time Amy starts telling us where she went after she left Carthage, you'll hate Nick.

From the halfway point to the end of Gone Girl, Flynn piles twist on deception on bombshell. Nick finds himself outmaneuvered at every turn. Amy finds that lift on the run, out among the real sharks of the world, is not as easy as she expected it to be. Flynn keeps upping the stakes. Just when I thought there was nowhere else for the story to go, Flynn managed to surprise and shock me. I really want someone else I know to read this book so that I can talk about it with them.

When I finished, I was left with the thought that Amy is the reason some men absolutely hate women. I won't list all the things she did and lied about, because I have to leave some mystery for people who haven't read it yet. At one point, Nick says that he has become a "one woman misogynist" because of Amy. She is a sociopath. I think she would have been a villain even without her upbringing as the model for Amazing Amy, a character created by her parents for a series of children's books. Amazing Amy always does the right thing. The books have quizzes that are supposed to help children learn how to make moral choices. That is too much pressure for a child who isn't a budding psychopath. Amy as a character completely steals the show in Gone Girl.

The other thing that Flynn nails in Gone Girl is the portrayal of the media. For large sections of the book, it doesn't matter so much what the police think of Nick so much as what the media thinks of him. Ellen Abbott, who hosts a talk show/news show that specializes in stories of women victimized by men. She's almost Nick's enemy as much as Amy is. Nick's lawyer points out that there's no such thing as an unprejudiced jury anymore because of the media. Everyone makes up their mind based on what the media tells them.

Audiobook Notes: Gone Girl is the first audiobook I have listened to in ages. I used to listen to them on long road trips until I realized that concentrating on the book was making me drive ten miles under the speed limit. I signed up for a subscription to Audible because I wanted a bedtime story. I don't know if it was the reader's interpretation of Amy's lines, but I really was suspicious of Amy from the first. When her diary entry tells the story of their meeting at a party, I found that Amy was not the kind of person I could like. She was arch, sly, and arrogant. I was fooled by her later diary entries. When the turn came, I felt so vindicated. The readers changed their voices to play other characters and they put a wealth of emotion into the reading that it really was a performance. I'm glad that I picked this book for my first choice.

5.20.2014

The Midnight Side, by Natasha Mostert

The Midnight Side
There are so many proverbs and cliches about revenge. And I haven't found one that was wrong yet. As I read The Midnight Side, by Natasha Mostert, I often thought of the one about digging two graves. The irony of this is that the person who is seeking vengeance is already in their grave.

An early morning phone call wakes Isa de Witt out of a sound sleep in the first pages of The Midnight Side. Her cousin, Alette, tells Isa that she hopes Isa will do the favor she will ask when the times come. A few hours later, Isa receives word from a London solicitor that Alette died in a car crash two days prior. Isa travels from South Africa to London to attend to the tasks outlined in Alette's unusual will. Alette has set up a series of three letters, each asking Isa to do something to destroy Alette's ex-husband, Justin. Alette, via letters, tells Isa that her life has been hell since the divorce. She tells Isa that he is controlling and won't leave her alone. Isa doesn't feel good about it, but she calls financial reporters and investors to spill the beans on Justin's pharmaceutical company.

When they were girls, after Isa went to live with Alette and her family in KwaZulu-Natal, the two developed a strong bond. They were able to share dreams. Alette always knew when Isa had a bad dream; she was Isa's protector for years. Their shared past goes a long way to assuage Isa's guilt about destroying Justin's company. But then she meets Justin in person and he strikes a spark in her. Alette and Alette's friend, Michael, try to warn her away to no avail.

Isa's chapters alternate with sections narrated by a mysterious and frightening person who breaks into Alette's house, where Isa is staying. He misses Alette terribly and grows to loathe Isa. He watches Isa while she sleeps and moves things around in the house.

As The Midnight Side progresses, it becomes clear that none of Isa's initial impressions were correct...I can say no more.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.

5.19.2014

Trigger warnings or challenge lines?

Over the weekend, Jennifer Medina reported in The New York Times that a petition is making the rounds at the University of California—Santa Barbara to put trigger warnings on syllabi to warn students about content in the materials that will be covered during the course. The Urban Dictionary defines a trigger warning as:
Used to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content. Sometimes abbreviated as "TW."
Students who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder may then choose to opt out of viewing or reading the material. Similar petitions to post trigger warnings have made the rounds at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, and other universities, according to Medina's articles.

Trigger warnings are nothing to make light of. Just today, during a book talk I gave for university staff and faculty, I included a few warnings myself (all about Hanya Hanagihara's The People in the Trees*). It was only fair to do so, I think. It gives potential readers the chance to avoid something they don't want to see.

College, however, is a place to expose yourself to uncomfortable ideas. A trigger warning could be seen as a challenge line. I don't have PTSD, but some topics bother me. Some topics bother me a lot. If the book or film covers abuse or violence or anything else that might trigger someone in a way that's integral to the plot, I would urge readers to consider pushing themselves a little (and only if they're comfortable). Literature can be a safe space. Literature can heal.

Something to think about.



____________

* It's an amazing book, but even I was bothered by some of the events and I've been reading harrowing mysteries for years.

Forty Acres, by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty Acres
This book is going to piss people off. No matter who you are, what gender you are, or what color you are, this book is going to piss someone off. This is not to say that Dwayne Alexander Smith's thriller, Forty Acres, is a bad book. It's a deliberately provocative book. It asks questions about race the we still need to talk about. (It's not to successful with its questions about gender, though. But I'll get to that later.)

Martin Grey has just won a $22.5 million dollar payout for his client, who suffered years of racial abuse and discrimination from his employer. Grey went up against Damon Darrell, a celebrity lawyer. Instead of being angry for ruining his winning streak, Darrell invites Grey to join his group of African American "Titans of Industry." Grey believes this is the first step to real success.

The book skims over the next three months, until Darrell decides to invite Grey on his semi-annual whitewater rafting trip. Grey's wife, Anna, is apprehensive despite all of Darrell and his friends' reassurances that Grey will be perfectly safe. Darrell grows cagey when the Greys ask for more details. Once Grey arrives at the "camping site," he learns why their plane was flying south instead of west and why no one would tell him what to expect while rafting. Instead of going to the Wenatchee River, Darrell has taken Grey to Forty Acres. Forty Acres is named for the infamous Field Order No. 15, which promised freed Blacks forty acres and a mule as reparations. The property, owned by Dr. Thaddeus Kasim, is well off the beaten track for good reason. Kasim has been kidnapping the descendants of slave owners for years and keeping them at Forty Acres, either as house or field slaves or mine workers. It's every bit as brutal and repellent as American slavery was during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

Grey is understandably upset about what Kasim, Darrell, and the rest are up to. The last man to protest, however, was thrown off a cliff. Kasim et al. are very serious about keeping their organization secret. The idea behind resurrected slavery is, as Dr. Kasim explains it, to quiet "Black noise," cultural conventions and ingrained racism that keep African American men in a cycle of crime and poverty. Treating whites as slaves will help Black men get rid of any inferiority complex they have. As Kasim explained this to Grey, I could hear a whole host of counter-arguments in the "Not all men" vein that readers would make. As I said, Forty Acres is meant to be provocative.

Because Forty Acres is a thriller, the plot follows Grey's attempts to blow the whistle on the operation and not be thrown off a cliff in a faked suicide. This is a mis-step, I think. The book is thought provoking as it is, but thrillers aren't usually taken seriously as philosophical and social thought pieces. If this had been written as literary fiction, without the trappings of genre, Forty Acres could have been absolutely mind blowing instead of merely causing indignation.

The other issue I had with this book is that Smith spends so much time focusing on race and Black men, that he doesn't spend much time on African American women. How are they supposed to quiet their own, no less soul-killing "Black noise"? With the exception of Anna and the wives of Darrell's group, the women are all white slaves that are used by men just the way female slaves are. None of the women, even Anna Grey, gets to strike back. This bothered me a lot. Forty Acres has a great premise for a thriller, but as I said before, this could have been a mind blowing work of literary fiction that asked all kinds of unanswerable questions.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 July 2014.

5.18.2014

In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen

In Paradise
After nearly 70 years, what is left to say about the Shoah that hasn't already been said? Peter Matthiessen's masterful novel, In Paradise, reveals that there are still many questions. In Paradise also shows its readers just how many of those questions remain unanswerable, even after seven decades.

In 1996, clerics, survivors, academics, and descendants of perpetrators gather in Oświęcim to make a week long pilgrimage to Auschwitz I and II. All have their own reasons for visiting. Some are there to remember; others to atone. Clements Olin doesn't share his real reasons at first. On the first day at the Vernichtungslager, he tells those who ask that he's there to do research. He tells himself that he's there to try and understand the 1951 suicide of Shoah survivor Tadeusz Borowski, one of Olin's favorite poets. Halfway through the novel, it becomes clear that Olin is really there to see if he can discover what happened to his mother.

Olin's aristocratic family, the Olinskis, escaped Poland in the late 1930s. Their anti-Nazi politics might have made them targets. Clements himself was rescued later, after his birth; his parents weren't married and his mother couldn't leave with the Olinskis. The Olinskis ransomed him. They never spoke about Emi Allgeier and her possibly Jewish heritage. After Clements left Poland, she was rounded up and sent to the Krakow ghetto. After that, she was probably sent to Auschwitz.

Though the book is entirely set at Auschwitz and Oświęcim and the Shoah is the event that brought all the pilgrims together, the book is about the horrific and complicated aftermath everyone must find a way to deal with. The first third of In Paradise is full of questions, literal questions that fill paragraph after paragraph. Some of the questions are Clements' own. Others are questions posed by German descendants or Polish witnesses. Many of the questions are asked (or snarled or shouted or spat) by Gyorgi Earwig. No one likes the man much, but no one can deny that he's telling the truth when he challenges them about their purpose or their epiphanies.

Much of the book is deliberately depressing. You're meant to feel the weight of history and guilty as much as these pilgrims are. But there is a wonderful moment of inappropriate catharsis near the end of the book. The pilgrims find themselves dancing with abandon when an American cantor sings Oseh Sholom. Some characters try to shame the dancers because Auschwitz is the last place anyone should dance and feel joy. And yet, the dancers can't help but argue that it's right and fitting to feel joy at being alive, even in a place that will represent death for centuries. Later, Clements (who danced) also finds that the other appropriate emotion to feel is a profoundly broken heart.

In Paradise will break your heart. It will leave you with impossible questions. It's a book that you will have to challenge yourself to read. And it's a challenge everyone needs to step up to at some point in their lives.

5.17.2014

All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park

All Those Vanished Engines
I am left with one question after reading Paul Park's tripartite novella, All Those Vanished Engines. That question is "What the fuck?" All my other questions about this strange book can be summed up in that one useful phrase.

All Those Vanished Engines is the most meta novella (or novel) I have ever read. The stories layer back on each other in an innumerable regressions. They weave in and out of Park's own family history. They even enter the stories of Park's creative literature students. And the various strands are slippery as hell. As the novella progresses, it gets harder and harder to tell what's going on and which of Park's various ancestors is being discussed. In the first section, two narrators end up telling each other's stories. In the second, you have one of Park's students tries to "kill him softly" by writing about his life via in some creative nonfiction. In the third, everything breaks down.

The best explanation of the structure of the book comes in part three. Park (the author as character) remarks on the nature of autobiography:
Without alternatives we resort to telling stories, coherent narratives involving chains of circumstance, causes and effects, climactic moments, introductions and denouements. We can't help it. 
This is even before we to make things up...memory cannot be separated from ordinary thinking, which is constructed in layers, rather than sequences...Both memory and history consist not of stories but of single images, words, phrases, or motifs repeated to absurdity. Who could tolerate reading about such things? Who could even understand  it... 
But stories once they're started are self-generating. (Part III, Chapter 2*)
The first part was the most interesting for me. Paulina Claiborne writes stories to alleviate her boredom after her grandmother bans her from all books. She writes about an alternate 1967 in which martians have invaded. The main character of that story starts telling his own tale about a girl named Paulina who lives in an alternate South where the Civil War ended in 1864 with a truce between the two belligerents. As their stories went on, it became clear that they were creating each other. It was fascinating to watch.

In the second and third parts, where Paul Park takes over narration duties, I found myself losing interest. But the last fifth of the book, I was skimming. This novella did not work for me. The structure was too unwieldy to sustain a coherent narrative. I could see what Park was doing—and I salute him for his boldness—but the last part felt a lot like cheap therapy. (I know that's a snarky thing to say, but it's the truth.)

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 1 July 2014.
__________

* From the advanced reader copy, kindle edition.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

Boy, Snow, Bird
Is there any relationship so fraught as the one between mothers and daughters? There is so much emotional, cultural, and historical baggage just waiting for the moment when a mother and daughter first set eyes on each other that its no wonder Freud had so much material to work with when he was starting his practice. There are mothers and daughters all over the place in Helen Oyeyemi's magical novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. The relationships are further complicated by race and aesthetics and the legacy of abuse. This is the kind of novel that English majors dream of. It's so full of meaning just waiting to be unpacked, but it's also written so that you could share it with your non-English major friends and—for once—they won't think you mental when you natter on about how much you enjoyed reading it.

Boy Novak runs away from her violent father, the rat catcher, one night in the early 1950s. She uses all the money she could find to ride a bus to the end of its line in Flax Hill, Massachusetts. She has no practical skills. She doesn't rely on her startling beauty to attract a mate—though many of the other characters suspect that's what she's up to. She eventually marries Arturo Whitman, but she doesn't love him. They suit each other. Boy moves in with widower Arturo and his daughter, Snow. The trio are content until Boy becomes pregnant. Once her daughter, Bird, is born, the delicate balance in the Whitman family is destroyed.

Bird's skin color reveals a secret the matriarch of the Whitman clan was hoping to hide from the world. The Whitmans are, in the eyes of society, "colored"—but many of them have pale enough skin that they can "pass" for white. Even in Massachusetts, that still matters. Snow is pale, too, and many of the older members of the family treasure her and spoil her. Boy fears that they will shun or mistreat Bird because she reminds them of their origins. So she has Snow sent away to live in Boston with her aunt and uncle.

Reviewers of Boy, Snow, Bird, have remarked that this novel is a retelling of the Snow White story. It is, but I saw the fairy tale as the framework under this amazingly layered narrative. Fairy tales and folk tales appear throughout the novel. All of the stories are about beautiful women and the price they pay for that beauty. It's impossible to read these stories without wondering what the characters mean by telling them. Oyeyemi's characters cry out for psychoanalysis; they all have mother issues.

Unlike in Snow White, there is no clear villain. Oyeyemi's novel is narrated in turns by Boy and Bird. Because you're inside their heads, you're told why they act the way they do. Boy's actions—even though I think they backfire—make sense. Not that she's entirely justified in her actions, of course. Snow also gets to have her own say, in the form of letters to Bird during the last half of Boy, Snow, Bird. I loved that Oyeyemi did this because it throws shade on a character everyone thinks is perfect. Oyeyemi has lifted characters out of a fairy tale and made them real people.

The more I write here about Boy, Snow, Bird, the more I also think this would be a perfect book for a good book club. There is so much to talk and think about in this book!

Return of the bedtime story

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl has been on my currently reading shelf on GoodReads for three weeks now. (Villette is still there, too, but that's a different story.) It's not taking me that long to get through the book because I'm not enjoying it. It's taking me so long because I'm listening to the audiobook for an hour or two every other night or so.

I'm not a fan of summer. One of the many reasons is that it takes so long for it to get dark I've been having a hard time getting to sleep. I'm tired, but not exactly sleepy a lot of nights. I was listening to podcasts, but quickly ran out of new (and old) content to listen to. The act of reading would wind me up and then I wouldn't get to sleep until the wee hours. So I went back to an old tried and true trick for getting to sleep. I resurrected the bedtime story.

Because my parents stopped reading my bedtime stories some decades ago, I resorted to audiobooks. And it was just what I needed.

As I listened to the two performers of Gone Girl, I found my interpretation of the characters being molded by their interpretations of the characters. When you read plain text, it's up to you as the reader to put nuance and tone into the dialog and streams of consciousness. When you have someone reading it for you—someone who's read all the way to the end—I suspect that knowledge of the whole story shapes how they read the words to their audience. It's a subtle thing, but for me, it adds a frame to the narrative. There's what the characters themselves are trying to tell you as the reader and the performers are in between, their voices shaping how you feel about the characters and their reliability as narrators.

The more I follow this line of thinking, the more I wonder if I'm reading too much into things. Any other audiobook fans have this suspicion, too?

5.15.2014

The Setting Sun, by Bart Moore-Gilbert

The Setting Sun
Bart Moore-Gilbert, a professor at London University, has fond memories of his father, Bill. Bill was a game warden in Tanganyika (now Rwanda) and Bart's childhood was full of safaris and poachers and hot sun. Bart was away at boarding school in England when Bill's plane crashed, killing him. The family relocated to England permanently after that. Bart didn't have much more to do with the former Empire except for his lingering love of post-colonial literature. Out of the blue, an Indian historian contacts Bart and asks him if he or his brothers have any old documents from Bill's time as an officer in the Indian Police. The question kicks of an overdue quest by Bart to find out what kind of man his father was before he became a family man. Bart recounts his research trip to India in The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets.

Bill Moore-Gilbert arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) for police training in 1938. He left India in 1948, on Independence Day. During those eight years, Bill tracked down criminals and dacoits. Increasingly, Bill and the rest of the Indian Police were tasked with arresting and disrupting the Indian Nationalist Movement. In Maharashtra, the province Bill was stationed in, this meant Bill was working against the Prati Sarkar, the Parallel Government. As Bart digs through the various archival collections in Mumbai, Satara, Kolhapur, and Ratnagiri, he finds disturbing hints that the fair-minded man who was his father may have participated in the violent repressions against nationalists and their potential accomplices.

Ajinkyatara Fort, near Satara. Bill Moore-Gilbert used to
visit this site while he was stationed there.
Bart also tracks down people who knew his father as he travels around Maharashtra. Almost everywhere he turns, he gets conflicting reports of his father's actions and character. The official records don't help clear things up because they're either fragmentary or just missing. Bart's quest stirs up old (but not forgotten) questions about the Raj, imperialism, terrorism, and nationalism. The India that Bart visits is not at peace. Instead of fighting against the British, the Hindu Indians fight against the Pakistanis and Muslim Indians. It's the same fight, with different antagonists.

Bart is disheartened for most of his trip, until he fetches up in Ratnagiri. Ratnagiri was Bill's last posting in India before he retired from the police, got married, and moved to Tanganyika. The town is sweltering and its Hindu and Muslim citizens strictly segregate themselves. Strangely enough, it's in Ratnagiri that Bart starts to make peace with all the contradictions he's found in India. There's a portion of the book where Bart meditates on the fact that it took him much longer than other children to learn that his father was imperfect. The plane crash and Bill's early death froze him in Bart's memory. Now, he can finally see his father as a man and an equal.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.

5.12.2014

Outrage, by Arnaldur Indriðason

Outrage
How do you write an Inspector Erlendur novel without Erlendur? Arnaldur Indriðason gives it a shot in Outrage by promoting one of Erlendur's detectives to protagonist. At the end of the previous Inspector Erlendur novel, Hypothermia, Erlendur traveled back to his home village in eastern Iceland to try and find the remains of his brother, who went missing during a blizzard decades ago.

Elínborg is one of two detectives who do most of Erlendur's legwork. With Erlendur gone, Elínborg and Sigurður Óli have to take over when a man is found dead in his apartment. The man has a fistful of Rohypnol in his mouth and his throat slit from ear to ear. It doesn't take long for Elínborg to work out that the man was a date rapist. The first theory is that a woman took revenge on him, but the only clue Elínborg has to go on is a purple shawl that smells of Indian spices.

Elínborg has a more logical style than Erlendur. Erlendur tends to go on hunches and stubbornness. Elínborg follows the clues from the shawl to an Indian cooking supply store to a customer that bought a tandoori oven. She listens to a mentally dodgy witness (who is paranoid about the electromagnetic waves put out by the wiring in her apartment) to a man with a limp and a leg brace. Of course, Indriðason throws Elínborg (and us) a gigantic twist at the end of the book that turns everything inside out.

I understand the reader criticism of this book on GoodReads. Erlendur's name is in the subtitle of this book, but he never appears. In fact, it becomes clear that Erlendur has gone missing on his quest; no one has heard from him in two weeks. Elínborg is an interesting character. Unlike so many other detectives, Elínborg is a tired mom instead of an internally tormented detective with a troubled past. She has to balance her home life against her job. As Outrage goes on, she starts to wonder if it's worth the cost to her family. Whenever anyone asks her what she does, Elínborg answers that her job is to help people who need it. She sounds like she's trying to convince herself that her job is worthwhile as much as shes answering the question.

The only question I'm left with after reading Outrage is, "Does Indriðason plan to spin off his secondary characters into their own series?"

5.11.2014

Season of the Witch, by Natasha Mostert

Season of the Witch
Gabriel Blackstone makes his living stealing information. In central London, this is a lucrative—if not legal—occupation. If it weren't for a woman reappearing from his past, Blackstone would still be skirting the law and living large. In Natasha Mostert's Season of the Witch, Blackstone's life is about to get very complicated.

William Whittington offers Blackstone a job that falls outside of his current area of expertise. Whittington knows that Blackstone used to work for Eyestorm, a fringe company that used remote viewers to find lost things and people. Blackstone burnt out spectacularly years before and is reluctant to take the job—until he is asked by Whittington's wife, who used to be Blackstone's girlfriend. Whittington's son, Robert, has gone missing. The last people to see him alive were the enigmatic Monk sisters. Blackstone "slams" his first ride since his Eyestorm days and has a vision of Robert being drowned in the pool behind the sisters' Victorian house.

Dropping his other jobs—much to the annoyance of his partner, Isidore—Blackstone insinuates himself into Morrighan and Minnaloushe Monk's company. It's not as difficult as he thought it would be. He hacks their laptop and discovers a diary written by one of them. In the diary, he finds that the sisters were playing some kind of game with Robert Whittington and that he's their next "playmate."

The Monk sisters are strange women. They are modern day alchemists seeking transformation, but not the mundane transformation of lead into gold. As Blackstone digs deeper into their lives, he falls in love with both of them. He is torn because he loves the words of the diary writer and the way the sisters make him feel, but he knows that one of them is a murderer. One of them pushed Robert under the water until he died. He just can't tell which one.

Season of the Witch is a hypnotic read. It doesn't take any of the expected paths of contemporary fantasy and that's what I loved about it. I have the second book from the series from NetGalley as well, and I'm very much looking forward to diving into it.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.

5.10.2014

Woefully underrated authors

Several of the book sites and podcasts I follow have been talking about under-the-radar books or finding out about new authors that people aren't really talking about. This post is my contribution. I'm only including authors who've written more than one non-series book that I've read and liked, otherwise this would just be another book recommendation post.

Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë

Her sisters Charlotte and Emily get all the attention. As much as I love Jane Eyre, I adore both of Anne Brontë's novels The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. Her books were full of more anger and honesty than you'd expect from Victorian literature. Her characters feel like real people you could meet, even today.

S.G. Browne

I recommend Browne's books to readers who have off-kilter senses of humor and his novel, Fated, is a personal favorite of mine. I collect funny writers because they are so very hard to find. Like another of my favorite funny writers, Christopher Moore, Browne balanced the funny with the serious, making both all the more poignant.


Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory

I've been reading Daryl Gregory since Pandemonium came out in 2008. His writing has only gotten better since. The premises of each book has been startling and original. He leaves you thinking about questions that would vex the best philosophers. His latest book, Afterparty, has appeared on John Scalzi's blog in the Big Ideas series and I've seen the book reviewed more widely than any of his past books. Gregory really does deserve to be more widely read.

Karen Maitland

I love Maitland's dark historical fiction. I first read The Owl Killers, then rushed out to find a copy of Company of Liars. So many novels in the genre omit the grittier elements of their settings, but Maitland pulls no punches. Further, she pinpoints times of crisis in her novels, crises that mean the characters have to face a change in their paradigms.

Marcel Theroux

Marcel Theroux's novel, Far North, was recommended to me and I completely fell in love with it. Now that I've read Strange Bodies, I'm waiting impatiently for his next book. Like Daryl Gregory, Theroux writes terrific speculative fiction. His books are beautifully written. They bridge the gap between science fiction and literary fiction in a way that doesn't feel like a literary writer moonlighting to show off.

A word about Anthony Marra. Last year, I read Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. When I finished, I immediately started recommending it to all my reading friends. I pestered my library director until he read it. For months, it seemed like I was the only person talking about this book. That changed in the fall and I am so pleased. I guess he's not under-the-radar anymore.

Red Winter, by Dan Smith

Red Winter
Is the revolution still worth fighting for if you're ordered to burn and kill and torture anyone even suspected of having "counter-revolutionary" thoughts? That question lies at the heart of Dan Smith's Red Winter. Set during the Russian Civil War in the years following World War I, armies are raging back and forth across the Ukraine and no where is safe. Nikolai Levitsky returns from war, with the body of his brother on his horse, to find that his village has been emptied. The izbas still have plates and dinnerware laid out. Coats still hang on hooks. But all the people are gone from Belev.

Nikolai and his brother deserted. They hid their uniforms and papers on two dead men and ran for it. Alek died of his wounds on the way, but Nikolai pushes on. The first night after he returns, Nikolai is surprised to find the emaciated figure of Galina hiding in his house. Galina's sanity is none too stable, but she tells him that everyone was taken by Koschei. Her husband's remains are in the woods. After Galina shows Nikolai what happened to Sasha, she drowns herself in the lake, so that she "can join the others."

Koschei is a figure from Russian folklore and, at first, Nikolai can't trust anything Galina said. The next day, he finds two women who have been hunting Koschei. The Chekist who calls himself Koschei the Deathless killed Tanya's husband, son, and father. She and Lyudmila have been hunting him for over a month, following his trail of dead men with red stars branded into their skin. At first, the trio split up, Tanya and Lyudmila head for the nearest town seeking news. Nikolai follows the trail signs in the woods. Eventually, they meet up again outside of Dolinsk and join forces. Their quest leads to an explosive and tense standoff with Koschei.

As Nikolai travels north after the man who took his family, more details are revealed about his past. We learn what made him run from his post. He sees the signs of the Bolsheviks and the Black, Blue, and Green armies everywhere.The country is tearing itself apart. No one trusts each other. At one point, a character thanks Nikolai just for not harming him. Nikolai has lost his revolutionary fervor and questions the bloody cost. What could be worth the Terror?

Earlier this year, I read Smith's The Child Thief. The Child Thief was a good book, but could have used editing to cut out unnecessary repetition. Red Winter is much more tightly written, much subtler. Characters race across the landscape, hunting each other. Impossible questions are pondered. And everyone has to find a way to live with what they've done.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 18 July 2014.

5.09.2014

Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien de Castell

Traitor's Blade
Falcio val Mond is an inconvenient man. With is former king, Paelis, Falcio resurrected the Greatcoats. The Greatcoats used to travel the land, hearing cases and dispensing justice. No one stood in authority over them, so it was probably just a matter of time before they were disbanded. When the Dukes rebel against Paelis, the king orders Falcio to have the Greatcoats stand down. In exchange for amnesty for the 144 members of the Greatcoats, they are once again disbanded. Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien de Castell, picks up Falcio's story five years after Paelis' death.

Falcio, along with two former Greatcoats, have taken a position with a caravaner, hoping that their employer will use his influence to reinstate the Greatcoats. Within pages, however, the caravaner is assassinated and Falcio and his companions are framed. They manage to escape just in the nick of time by signing on with another caravan, only to find themselves embroiled in political machinations. With no king, the land has fractured into dukedoms. The dukes and duchesses reign like absolute monarchs. Their knights enforce their rule. No one speaks for the lower classes and their lives tend to be distinctly Hobbesian.

As Falcio gets further entangled with plots and injustices, de Castell shares scenes from his early life, showing why Falcio has such a drive to stop the powerful from abusing those without power. He's got a seemingly impossible fight ahead of him. At times, his frustration and rage take over. He is a berserker when he encounters former enemies and people who remind him of former enemies.

Traitor's Blade is a lightning fast read. The fight scenes are impeccable. The plotting is tight—though characters often meet in remarkable coincidences. What I enjoyed most about the book was the quick banter between Falcio and his companions, Kest and Brasti. I snickered at their insults and laughed out loud at several of their jaundiced comments. This is the first book in a series and, according to de Castell's website, the second book has been submitted to the publisher for editing.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 1 July 2014.

5.08.2014

The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore

I actually finished reading this book on Tuesday, but I had to wait for my book high to dissipate before I could actually write a review of it. I'd just gush otherwise.

Thst lie Serpent of Venice
After his adventures in Fool, Pocket has moved on to Venice to stop a crusade on orders from his beloved Queen Cordelia. Fool was a retelling of King Lear, but Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice reads more like a mashup of Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and "The Cask of Amontillado." As Pocket tries to avert a war, he gives marital advice to Othello and tries to thwart Shylock's enemies. Oh, and he pisses off a man named Montressor a few too many times as well.

The timeline of The Serpent of Venice zips back and forth as Pocket receives his orders from Cordelia, arrives in Venice, and makes friends and enemies. At the very beginning of the book, Moore drops us in the thick of the action as Pocket the Fool is about to be bricked up behind a wall by Montressor. He only manages to escape with the assistance of a horny sea serpent*. Once free, Pocket finds that having his enemies think that he's dead gives him a lot of freedom to act. Shylock gives Pocket a job as a servant and soon Pocket is not only trying to get revenge on Montressor and Iago, he's also trying to help Shylock get his pound of flesh from Antonio**.

Just like I was bothered by Lear, there were things about Othello and The Merchant of Venice that deeply annoyed me. If only Othello had been less jealous and more trusting of poor Desdemona. If only Shakespeare had been bold enough to not make Merchant anti-Semitic. At times, The Serpent of Venice reads like an attempt to fix the characters' many problems. Pocket is always in just the right spot or causes an interruption at crucial moments to outfox Iago and Antonio. I cheered when I saw the moments when Othello might go into a rage or when Portia would twist the law to get Shylock exiled averted—and always in the most hilarious way possible***.

Moore was always a skilled, entertaining writer, but I think he's outdone himself with The Serpent of Venice. I was awed by the way he managed to weave his plot into Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. I could not put this book down. There's one dog ear on page 50, but I finished the rest of the book in one go. I ate with one hand while I read. I drank with my eyes peering over the top of my glass so that I could keep reading. Sure, it's a cliché, but it's true.

__________

* This may be Shakespeare, but it's also Christopher Moore, so there are a lot of dick jokes. There were many passages in this book that had me snickering with glee like a twelve-year-old boy.

** Not actually a metaphor, according to the original play.

*** One such moment involves a nun costume and did I mention the dick jokes?

5.06.2014

It belongs in a museum

Yesterday, Galleycat reported that a five hundred year old Torah had been sold at auction for a record amount. The winning bidder paid nearly four million dollars for it. I love seeing books sell for incredible amounts. It reminds me that other people cherish the form as much as I do. But I wasn't happy to see that the bidder was anonymous. I always flinch, figuratively, when I see a cultural artifact like this one go to a private or anonymous bidder. My first coherent thought after reading articles like this is, to quote the famous fictional archaeologist, "It belongs in a museum!" It saddens me that this Torah, like other privately held books and works of art, will only be see and studied by its owner instead of shared with the world.

Perhaps its the librarian in me that objects to sales like this. I want books to be shared and passed around and used by as many readers as possible.

This picture comes from Christies' press release.
The press release notes:
Printed in Hebrew in Bologna in January 1482, the volume represents the very first appearance in print of all five books of the Pentateuch as well as the first to which vocalisation and cantillation marks have been added. It is equally the first time that the printed Biblical text is accompanied by Rashi’s commentary and the paraphrase in Aramaic (Targum Onkelos).
The press release also reports that two other copies have gone to auction in the past, so this isn't the only copy of this incunabule in existence.

5.04.2014

Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies
How do you capture the essence of a person? Their life's work, their words, could be said to contain a spark of a person's mind. At least, that's the premise that a group of Russian scientists are working from in Marcel Theroux's stunning novel, Strange Bodies. But, alas, like all other bold but transgressive scientific experiments, this experiment is doomed to failure.

Dr. Nicholas Slopen is an expert in 18th century literature who lives in London with his wife and two children. He's not a titan in his field. His marriage is crumbling around him, though he doesn't realize how big the cracks are. The call from Hunter Gould to authenticate a cache of possible letters by Dr. Samuel Johnson comes out of the blue. Slopen's curiosity and his financial needs ensure that he will take the job. The language is perfect. The idiom is spot on. The handwriting is right, too. But the paper is wrong. The letters—even though they sound exactly like Johnson—cannot be real. When Slopen tells Gould and Sinan Malevin, who owns the papers, they are overjoyed instead of crushed.

Slopen presses Gould to explain what's going on. Reluctantly, Gould and Malevin introduce him to a man they call Jack Telauga. They tell Slopen that Jack is a savant who can reproduce original Johnson. Jack doesn't speak, but he writes just like the great lexicographer. The whole story is so strange, but plausible enough that Slopen accepts it. He continues to visit the strange man who lives in Malevin's basement. He grows close to Vera Telauga, Jack's caretaker and putative sister. When Vera has to travel to Moscow for an emergency surgery, she asks Slopen to take care of Jack for her. Gould and Malevin, she says, won't take proper care of him. Shortly after Jack arrives at Slopen's house, Slopen learns that Jack believes he is Samuel Johnson. No only does he believe he's Johnson, he's also very confused about how he came to this strange country. When Jack finds a newspaper dated from July of 2008, he has to be sedated before he can calm down.

Slopen begins asking questions again, refusing to be put off by Gould's vague evasions. What he learns is shattering. Gould and Malevin have found a way to resurrect the consciousness of Samuel Johnson using the man's dictionary and letters and diary and works. The process is not perfect, as anyone looking at Jack and see, but they have discovered a path to immortality. This is not the only revelation from Strange Bodies. The novel is composed of an ex-girlfriend's preface, a secret diary, the notes of a psychologist, and an epilogue narrated by a very surprising character. I apologize if this sounds cryptic, but I'll ruin all the twists if I say anything more about what actually happens.

I'm left with so many thoughts after reading Strange Bodies. Mostly, my thoughts are revolving around the idea that the only real path to immortality is to be remembered. Words are a distillation of thoughts. Thoughts reflect a person's personality. A body is just something to carry the personality around for a while. Malevin and his team are just swapping out bodies like putting a new chassis on a car. But is this the truth? Isn't a person also their foibles and mannerisms and relationships and embarrassments? There are times when Theroux gets philosophical, but none of it is boring. I was especially moved by the characters' meditations about the nature of identity. Theroux has a rare talent for being cerebral and entertaining at the same time.

At the beginning of the last section of Strange Bodies, Marcel Theroux quotes Vladimir Mayakovsky's poem "Past One O'Clock":

I know the power of words. They seem a trifle
Fallen petals beneath a dancer's feet
But they hold a man's soul, and lips, and bone.*

I wonder if Strange Bodies started with this poem, or if finding it was a happy accident, because it wonderfully encapsulates the entire novel. Strange Bodies is another of the rare books that moved me so much that, after I finished the last page, I had to close the book and just sit and think for a while. To me, this is proof of an incredible book.

__________

* A full version of "Past One O'Clock," but a different translation than Theroux used, can be read at PoemHunter.

More thoughts on likablity

It's been a little more than a year since Claire Messud's infamous interview with Publisher's Weekly about her novel, The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer, Annasue McCleave Wilson, commented that she wouldn't want to be friends with the protagonist. Messud tartly replied, "What kind of question is that?" And she was right. A character's likability is not important.

Last night, I was listening to another installment of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I am really enjoying the story and having someone (actually two someones) read it to me reminds me of when my parents used to read me and my siblings to sleep (but that's another post)*. The story is narrated in turns by Nick and Amy Dunne. As I listened to the narrator read out portions of Amy's journal, I realized that I really didn't like her. Amy is arch, pretentious, and incomplete as a person (but not as a character). If I met her, I wouldn't want to be friends with her. That's not going to put me off the book, however. I am fascinated by the character. And that's when I had my little epiphany.

Snape says, "Read it anyway."
In the past, the only characters I've really been put off are not the unlikable ones. It's the ones that actually repulse me that I don't like. I love reading well-drawn villains: Iago, Captain Ahab, Bill Sykes. A character that will make me stop reading a story are evil for no reason, who go above and beyond even the goriness of mysteries and thrillers. Or there are characters like Humbert Humbert from Lolita, whose predilections are so repellent that I don't want to find out more. I can read—and even enjoy—about villains and unsavory types in a book as long as there's a purpose for their presence. Likability is overrated.

Likability is also a weak criteria. People say they like or dislike things all the time. Facebook has made the terminology ubiquitous. It's used to the point now where it doesn't really mean anything. If I'm talking books or movies or art or whatever with someone and say they like something, I will press them until they tell me specifics. You can't have a meaningful conversation if you never rise above the level of like.

The more I think about this, the more I'm reminded of a post I wrote a year or so ago about pushing yourself to read challenging books. Reading a character you personally don't like could be another kind of challenge you set for yourself.

__________

* Are you allowed to put two parenthetical asides into one sentence? I don't care; I'm doing it anyway.

5.03.2014

A Better World, by Marcus Sakey

A Better World
Is there anything more dangerous than someone who wants to create a better world? In Marcus Sakey's second entry in the Brilliance Saga, A Better World, a mess of people who are absolutely convinced they know what's best have brought America to the brink of a new civil war.

In Sakey's America, as introduced in Brilliance, about 1% of the population were born with extraordinary gifts. Some can spot patterns even the most advanced computers can't find. Others can see math or can play chess with the world from ten moves ahead. The government and a significant portion of the other 99% are terrified of them because it means they might be obsolete. Nick Cooper, who has a gift for reading people, used to hunt down brilliants for the Department of Analysis and Response but he had a crisis of conscience at the end of Brilliance. In A Better World, he's got a new job as adviser to the president and his life has only gotten harder.

A Better World opens with a horrifying scene. A police cruiser pulls over a semi. The driver is ordered out of his vehicle. The fake police then set the poor driver on fire. Next, we learn that food deliveries to Fresno, Tusla, and Cleveland have all been stopped. The cities immediately run out of food. Looting breaks out. Neighborhood posses form. Then the power goes out. The Children of Darwin claim responsibility. The Secretary of Defense, Owen Leahy, pushes the new president into mobilizing the National Guard, then the Army and the Air Force in response to the terrorist threat. Cooper urges them all to calm down and try to talk it out, but the hawks keep pushing for war. Leahy in particular wants to put the new microchipping legislation into action.

Cooper does talk the president into letting him take an offer to the only person who might be able to get in touch with the Children of Darwin and talk them down. Unfortunately, from the moment he touches down in Tesla in the New Canaan Holdfast, everything goes wrong. I'm almost afraid to see what will happen in the next volume.

If Brilliance and A Better World sound familiar, the plot is very similar to the one in the X-Men movies. You can almost change the names of some of Sakey's characters for Marvel characters and, minus the costumes, they could be almost identical. This isn't a problem for me, because I love this kind of story. The way Sakey writes it, it's impossible to this book down. There's action at every turn and Sakey's take on genetic mutation is amazing.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 17 June 2014.

5.02.2014

Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe
In 1937, Cristián Ferrar is a senior partner for Coudert Frères. He has a comfortable life in Paris, keeps his family in style in a town out in the French country side. He's not married, but has no trouble finding women to spend time with. He's got a reputation as a problem solver so, when an official with the Spanish Republican intelligence service is killed in Madrid, Cristián is summoned to take his place in getting arms and munitions to Spain. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst, shows us a year in the life of Cristián Ferrar as he rushes across Europe "seeing what he can do."

When the book opens, the Spanish Civil War has been raging for a year and a half. Things are not going well for the Republican forces. They hold Madrid and Barcelona, but most of the countryside is in the hands of Francisco Franco's Nationalist (actually fascist) forces. If you know your history, you know that Ferrar's efforts and the efforts of the other arms merchants he works with are doomed. This hindsight lends an air of tragic romance to Ferrar's story in some ways, but also a sense of futility—even if Ferrar et al. doesn't know it yet. Meanwhile, Ferrar helps Count Polanyi try to coerce the Count's nephews over a deal involving a bank, a hotel, and a trio of viszlas. Later, he also is asked to help the Marquesa Maria Christina over the loss of a cash loan her husband made before his death without writing anything down. Each time Ferrar is asked to help someone, no matter how impossible it seems, Ferrar agrees to "look into it" and "see what he can do."

There are some entertaining scenes of action in Midnight in Europe, but they're few and far between. More than anything else, this book tries to capture the mood in Europe right before World War II. Everyone knows its coming. Some are already moving to protect their assets and make escape plans. The war in Spain is just a prologue to what's going to come.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 3 June 2014.

Truce

I didn't even have to make this.
Earlier this week, I began reading Charlotte Brontë's Villette as my classic novel for the month. I'm still trying to keep my New Year's resolutions. So far, I've been lucky that the classic (pre-1950) books have been entertaining. And then, I tried Villette.

I'm a huge fan of Jane Eyre. I expected to see at least some of the fire of Jane Eyre in Villette. I was so wrong. I hit a wall at page 300. I couldn't take any more of the seemingly directionless biography of Lucy Snowe. I'll finish it eventually, but I could feel the books on my to-read pile waiting anxiously. There are new books every Tuesday—every day on NetGalley and Edelweiss. There are too many books out there!

So, I'm calling a truce with Villette while I regroup.

Mortal Fire, by C.F. Dunn

Mortal Fire
Dr. Emma D'Eresby is a stranger in a strange land. She has just arrived in Maine, on the trail of an obscure 400 year old journal, after finishing her degree in history at Cambridge. The university depicted in C.F. Dunn's Mortal Fire, the opening novel in a new series, is full of odd characters. Emma finds a few good friends her first week, but unfortunately, she makes a few enemies.

The summaries I'd read of Mortal Fire intrigued me. They made this sound like another A Discovery of Witches, but that's not what this book is—at least not this part of it. Emma is a scholar and she does want to read this journal, but Dunn is never really clear why and the plot of the book rapidly carries our historian away from her own researches. First, Emma has to discourage the pushy attentions of Sam Weisner, who won't take not for an answer. Then there's Kurt Staahl, who gives Emma the creeps by following her and by generally being disturbing. In the middle of all this, Emma discovers an attraction to Dr. Matthew Lynes. Dr. Lynes clearly likes Emma, too, but always puts her off about his past and his family and giving Emma another mystery to ponder.

Weeks flash by in this book. Emma continues her research into the motivations of early modern torturers, tutors her graduate students, fends off Weisner and Staahl, and finds time to spend with Dr. Lynes. She finds the journal, but never has a chance to read it before she is brutally attacked the night of the university's All Saints' Night festivities.

The pacing of Mortal Fire is strange. It's clearly just the first part of a longer book. The attack takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book. The culprit is quickly arrested. Emma and Dr. Lynes grow closer during her convalescence, but there's not a lot of action in the entire last third of the book. I'm glad I knew this was just the beginning of a longer story because I would have been even more irritated by the abrupt ending. There's also almost too much going on in this book, making it feel muddled at times. And yet, I really enjoyed spending time with Emma. She's different and deeply principled. She never does what I expected her to do. My one big concern about her is that she was placed as the victim in need of rescue a few too many times in this book. I hope she gets to take firmer charge of her life in the next installments.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for a fair review.