Pretty charts

I was curious about how my year of reading added up, so I indulged my nerdy side and put together some charts. This may take a moment to load from infrogram.

The List, 2013-2014

It's that time of year again. It's time to reveal how many books I've read during the past twelve months. Since 1 September 2013, I have completed the following 216 titles (since my new blog theme doesn't show numbers for lists):
  1. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
  2. Dark Triumph, by Robin LaFevers
  3. The Madman's Daughter, by Megan Shepherd
  4. The Cusanus Game, by Wolfgang Jeshke
  5. Others of My Kind, by James Sallis
  6. Never Go Back, by Lee Child
  7. The Windsor Faction, by D.J. Taylor
  8. Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich
  9. The Bat, by Jo Nesbø
  10. Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, by David Barnett
  11. Jar City, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  12. This House is Haunted, by John Boyne
  13. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
  14. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
  15. The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane
  16. I Am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits
  17. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
  18. The Heavens Rise, by Christopher Rice
  19. The Kill Room, by Jeffrey Deaver
  20. Homeland, by Cory Doctorow
  21. Niceville, by Carsten Stroud
  22. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
  23. The Sleep Room, by F.R. Tallis
  24. Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve
  25. Johannes Cabal: the Fear Institute, by Jonathan L. Howard
  26. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin
  27. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
  28. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
  29. A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick
  30. The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett
  31. Plague, by Lisa Hinsley (novella)
  32. Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, by Daniel Kalla
  33. Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone
  34. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
  35. The Fall of Saints, by Wanjiku wa Ngugi
  36. Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles
  37. Heresy, by S.J. Parris
  38. The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak
  39. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
  40. The Stone Boy, by Sophie Loubière
  41. Something More Than Night, by Ian Tregillis
  42. The Corpse-Rat King, by Lee Battersly
  43. The Dream Runner, by Kerry Schafer
  44. City of Lost Dreams, by Magnus Flyte
  45. The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan
  46. The World's Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne
  47. Divergent, by Veronica Roth
  48. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth
  49. Police, by Jo Nesbø
  50. Wake, by Anna Hope
  51. Above, by Isla Morley
  52. Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich
  53. Longbourn, by Jo Baker
  54. The Cormorant, by Chuck Wendig
  55. Revolutionary, by Alex Myers
  56. The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal
  57. When It's a Jar, by Tom Holt
  58. A Different Kingdom, by Paul Kearney
  59. Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson
  60. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  61. The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook
  62. Wolfhound Century, by Peter Higgins
  63. The Child Thief, by Dan Smith
  64. The Other Tree, by D.K. Mok
  65. Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  66. Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  67. Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal (reread)
  68. Saints of the Shadow Bible, by Ian Rankin
  69. Seven for a Secret, by Lyndsay Faye
  70. The Waking Engine, by David Edison
  71. The Woken Gods, by Gwenda Bond
  72. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Chris Nickson
  73. The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones
  74. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
  75. A Dark Matter, by Peter Straub
  76. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  77. The Furies, by Mark Alpert
  78. Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler
  79. Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin (novella)
  80. An Officer and Spy, by Robert Harris
  81. Allegient, by Veronica Roth
  82. Hyde, by Daniel Levine
  83. The Time Tutor, by Bee Ridgway (short story)
  84. Altai, by Wu Ming
  85. The Coming, by Andrej Nikolaidis (novella)
  86. London Under, by Peter Ackroyd 
  87. Cress, by Marissa Meyer
  88. Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  89. The Quick, by Lauren Owen
  90. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier
  91. Dominion, by C.J. Sansom
  92. Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory
  93. Voices, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  94. Sister Wolf, by Ann Arensberg (novella)
  95. Saga, volumes I, II, and III, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples
  96. In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker (short stories)
  97. Rivers, by Michael Farris Smith
  98. The Antiquarian, by Gustavo Faveròn Patriau (novella)
  99. Q-23, by Paul Theroux (novella)
  100. Human Solutions, by Avi Silberstein (novella)
  101. In the Courtyard of the Cabbalist, by Ruchama King Feuerman
  102. The Draining Lake, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  103. Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes
  104. The Anatomy of Dreams, by Chloe Krug Benjamin
  105. The Colonial Hotel, by Jonathan Bennett (novella)
  106. The World Exchange, by Alena Graedon
  107. The Midnight Witch, by Paula Brackston
  108. Irenicon, by Aidan Harte
  109. Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  110. Love and Treasure, by Ayalet Waldman
  111. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
  112. Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
  113. The Weirdness, by Jeremy P. Bushnell
  114. Unwrapped Sky, by Rjurik Davidson
  115. A Highly Unlikely Scenario; Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World, by Rachel Cantor
  116. The Anatomy Lesson, by Nina Siegel
  117. MacTeague, by Frank Norris
  118. Luminous Chaos, by Jean-Christophe Valtat
  119. Seven Kinds of Hell, by Dana Cameron
  120. One Night in Winter, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  121. The Kraken King, by Meljean Brook (novella)
  122. The Liminal People, by Ayize Jama-Everett (novella)
  123. Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh
  124. A Thing Done, by Tinney S. Heath
  125. The Lewis Man, by Peter May
  126. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
  127. The Raven's Banquet, by Clifford Beal
  128. Marvel 1602, by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
  129. London Falling, by Paul Cornell
  130. The Well of Tears, by Roberta Trahan
  131. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter
  132. Fear, by Gabriel Chevalier
  133. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter (short stories)
  134. Dark Aemilia, by Sally O'Reilly
  135. The Farm, by Tom Rob Smith
  136. Halfskin, by Tony Bertauski
  137. Mortal Fire, by C.F. Dunn
  138. Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst
  139. Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  140. A Better World, by Marcus Sakey
  141. Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux
  142. The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore
  143. Traitor's Blade, by Sebastien de Castell
  144. Red Winter, by Dan Smith
  145. Season of the Witch, by Natasha Mostert
  146. Outrage, by Arnaldur Indriðason
  147. The Setting Sun, by Bart Moore-Gilbert
  148. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  149. All Those Vanished Engines, by Paul Park
  150. In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen
  151. Forty Acres, by Dwayne Alexander Smith
  152. The Midnight Side, by Natasha Mostert
  153. Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie
  154. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley
  155. Warburg in Rome, by James Carroll
  156. The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Purse, by Alan Bradley
  157. My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning
  158. Sedition, by Katherine Grant
  159. I am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley
  160. Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley
  161. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley
  162. The Bone Church, by Victoria Dougherty
  163. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman
  164. Blood Red, by Mercedes Lackey
  165. In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
  166. Unruly Places, by Alastair Bonnett
  167. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (audiobook)
  168. The Buried Life, by Carrie Patel
  169. You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, by Tom Gauld
  170. The Severed Streets, by Paul Cornell
  171. The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day
  172. Silent Witnesses, by Nigel McCrery
  173. Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor
  174. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (novella)
  175. World War Z, by Max Brooks (audiobook)
  176. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Schafer
  177. The Denouncer, by Paul M. Levitt
  178. Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor
  179. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë
  180. Dreams of Gods and Monsters, by Laini Taylor
  181. The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms, by Ian Thornton
  182. My Name is Resolute, by Nancy E. Turner
  183. Working Stiff, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
  184. The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, by Michelle Lovic
  185. Top Secret Twenty-One, by Janet Evanovich
  186. Monuments Men, by Robert Edsel
  187. Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark
  188. The Bullet Catcher's Daughter, by Rod Duncan
  189. The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean (novella)
  190. The Book of Life, by Deborah Harness
  191. The Monster's Wife, by Kate Horsley
  192. Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe
  193. The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi (audiobook)
  194. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
  195. The Heist, by Daniel Silva
  196. Neverhome, by Laird Hunt
  197. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
  198. Unspeakable Things, by Laurie Penny
  199. When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams
  200. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (reread)
  201. Gutenberg's Apprentice, by Alix Christie
  202. The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis
  203. Vicious, by V.E. Schwab
  204. City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
  205. The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker (novella)
  206. The Day of Atonement, by David Liss
  207. The Cartographer of No Man's Land, by P.S. Duffy
  208. Help for the Haunted, by John Searles
  209. The Resurrectionist, by Matthew Guinn
  210. Written in My Heart's Own Blood, by Diana Gabaldon
  211. The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Morgan
  212. A Little Folly, by Jude Morgan
  213. The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill
  214. A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger
  215. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes
  216. Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson

Little did he know; Or, Indulging in foreshadowing

Can you really call it foreshadowing anymore when an author, via their narrator, tells you flat out that a death or a betrayal or a twist is coming in so many words? I recently read A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger, and I lost count of the number of times that the narrator mentioned that he would later come to regret some action or his decision to trust a particular character. By the time the betrayal happened, it was no surprise at all. Foreshadowing with subtlety is not easy, granted. It takes a light touch.

The Delphic Sibyl hates spoilers.
Then I read Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson. In Life Goes On, the foreshadowing is no more than a hint, a touch of impeding tragedy. Since the book was originally published in 1932 (albeit in German), I'm going to spoil part of it. Fritz Fiedler has failed at every attempt to make a career. He later commits suicide. Before this, Keilson writes a scene in which the Fiedler family plans Fritz's next move for him. Keilson describes Fritz in this moment:
It was completely dark by then, and when Albrecht turned around again he saw the shape of his friend gently looming up out of the darkness. The tip of his cigarette glowed more brightly as he inhaled, and Albrecht saw his face for a moment; it was pale and waxen, like a dead man's. (186*)
The next time Albrecht sees Fritz is as a corpse in the morgue.

LiteraryDevices.net gave me this definition of foreshadowing:
Foreshadowing often appears at the beginning of a story or a chapter and helps the reader develop expectations about the coming events in a story. There are various ways of creating a foreshadowing...Foreshadowing in fiction creates an atmosphere of suspense in a story so that the readers are interested to know more.
Foreshadowing does take away some of the surprise. It helps later events make sense and keep characters true to their internal logic. If you reread a text with foreshadowing, you will see signs the author left for you.

Seeing foreshadowing done write took my metaphorical breath away. When I see writing done really, really well, I appreciate the author even more; it shows they've mastered their craft,


* From the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Damion Searls.

Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson

"I can't go on, I'll go on."
Samuel Beckett
Life Goes On
How can you pass up a book that was banned by the Nazis? Hans Keilson's rediscovered debut novel, Life Goes On, was published in 1932 (the last title by a Jewish author until the end of World War II) and was banned in 1934. According to the author's note at the end of the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Life Goes On is partially autobiographical. The family at the center of the book, the Seldersens, are not identified as Jewish, but the son, Albrecht, goes to university and makes a sort-of living as a musician as Keilson did before he emigrated to Holland.

As I read Life Goes On, the Beckett line quoted above was a constant refrain in my head. After surviving the first World War and nearly 23 years in business in an unnamed German city, Johann Seldersen is feeling the effects of the ruined economy. He is forced by his landlord to relocate to a smaller shop in the shared building, where he can't stock as much as he used to. Customers stay loyal, but when a local factory and brickworks burn to the ground, the Seldersens' regulars start to purchase things on credit. For the first time, Seldersen falls behind on his bills. He holds out for as long as he can. He even asks his bank for a loan to clear his debts. But with no money coming in, Seldersen borrows more and more just to stay in business. He believes that if he can just hold out long enough, things will turn around. Meanwhile, his son Albrecht is kept sheltered. He only learns how bad things are before he leaves for university and has to start fending for himself.

The deep shame and despair felt by characters like Seldersen senior coupled with their hope that things will eventually get better if they just wait it out is hard to see, especially coupled with the historical reality that followed. At the end of the novel, Albrecht decides to become political. Originally, Albrecht joins the communists but Keilson was required to make the ending at least ambiguous to get it published. Albrecht is the only character to realize that you just can't wait for things to get better on their own; you have to fight for your future. Albrecht's childhood friend, Fritz, ended up a suicide because the old ways weren't working. The company where he apprenticed failed. He couldn't get work in America. His family kept making plans for him, but everything Fritz tried failed.

The word shame is repeated throughout the book. The older generation of characters do everything they can to keep up the appearance of solvency. They're only able to get loans because of their reputations. To be seen sending letters to customers or even asking the bailiffs to collect debts is seen as shameful. The shame of poverty ages Albrecht's parents in just a few years. They had hoped to retire before everything started to go to hell. They worked all their lives and know the shame of failure is breaking them. As I read further, I started to understand just how the average German would have felt. It was an environment ripe for someone like Hitler.

Life Goes On is a reflective novel/memoir; not much happens, plot-wise. For once, I didn't mind this because the book is such a deep, textured psychological study of Weimar bourgeoisie. It's no surprise to me that Keilson later became a psychoanalyst and psychologist after the war. Life Goes On is full of insights that no history or historical fiction can match.


Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters
No one, not even seasoned Detroit detective Gabi Versado, could be prepared for the body found in the woods. Half is the remains of a young Black boy. The other half was a faun. They've been joined together by unknown means. But is is far from the strangest thing Versado will encounter in Lauren Beukes' shatteringly wonderful novel, Broken Monsters.

Clayton Broom is just one of many struggling artists in dying, bohemian Detroit. He's just not quite good enough to break out of the pack. He frightens people because he spouts cryptic and disturbing things. He gets worse after he accidentally kills a deer with his car after chasing an ex-girlfriend. After this, as the art dealers would say, he had a breakthrough. As Broken Monsters progresses, we learn just what Clayton—or the thing inside him—are trying to do.

Clayton is the catalyst in Broken Monsters, but he's just one of several main characters. Beukes shows us Versado and her team tracking, then closing in, on Clayton. She shows us Layla, Versado's daughter, as she struggles with the injustices of being a teenager in the age of social media and the Internet. Beukes shows us TK, an advocate for the homeless, as his friends enter Clayton's sphere. And then she gives us Jonno Haim, a freelance writer who is also trying to stand out from all the other ruin porn journalists that have descended on Detroit since the recession. In turns, we see how these disparate characters are drawn into Clayton's strange dream.

Broken Monsters begins much like another mystery novel. Clayton's murders are strange, but no stranger than some of the other elaborate modos* operandi serial killers have come up with in fiction. But then Beukes adds her special touch and the end of the novel becomes much more than a chase for a serial killer. I can't say too much about the last third of the book because everyone should be able to read it with fresh expectations. I will say that the ending is spectacular and that Broken Monsters is an unforgettable ride.

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


* This is the plural of modus operandi. I looked it up. Because I'm pedantic** like that.

** Speaking of pedantic, I have to report that Beukes does make a few missteps with American English. I always find Americans using Anglicisms jarring. Americans say "different from," not "different to." The word hospital is almost always preceded by an article. And Americans don't use proper as an adjective.


A Burnable Book, by Bruce Holsinger

A Burnable Book
As Bruce Holsinger portrays London, Southwark, and Westminster in A Burnable Book, you can't swing a cat without hitting three plotters. In this novel, the plots begin with a book of prophecies that claim to predict the deaths of all the English kings from William the Conqueror to Richard II. Of course, when Geoffrey Chaucer asks his friend and fellow poet, John Gower, to go looking for this book, Gower has no idea what he's in for.

In the prologue to A Burnable Book, a young woman is murdered by a shadowy man. He questions her in an unknown language, but is unable to find what he's looking for: a book. The book is, unbeknownst to him, in the possession of Agnes Fonteyn, a maudlyn (a prostitute). Agnes runs to her sister's house to hide, but the book doesn't stay hidden for long. As Agnes and her sister and friends elude the mysterious murderer from the prologue, John Gower uses his contacts across the city to try and find the book. Along the way, he finds that the book is at the center of a plot to assassinate the king, Richard II.

The words of the thirteenth prophecy, the one purporting to prophesy Richard's death, go viral—or whatever the medieval equivalent is. Gower finds the words, the rhythm strangely familiar. It's like he has the name of the poet on the tip of his brain. As he digs deeper, he finds out that the prophecies are a forgery—but that someone is trying to make them come true. Gower also finds out that he is a much smaller fish in the London pond than he thought he was. Others are playing a longer and deeper game than he's ever tried to play.

Events go from troubling to Gower to downright alarming when his son, an accused counterfeiter and murderer, returns from Italy. By this time, Agnes and the maudlyns are in danger for their lives. Gower's friend Chaucer appears to be implicated in the treasonous business of the book. A Burnable Book is best read in as few sittings as possible because there is so much going on here. You have multiple narrators, one of whom is transgender. Another narrator turns out to have died before the book starts. Then there are all the plots. It's a lot to keep track of.

Other critics have pointed out that the strength of this book is in the richness of the setting. I have to agree. A Burnable Book is so well researched that you can smell the history. Holsinger shows you the brutality, but also the beauty, of medieval London and Southwark. I don't know that I buy Chaucer's role here, given what I know about his royal patronage and friendships with Prince Edward and Richard II. I wonder why Holsinger chose Gower to be his protagonist. I really liked the parts narrated by Edgar/Eleanor Rykener. She is a wonderful, unusual character and she frequently stole the show from Gower.


Best books of 2013-2014

Since I can't recommend every book I've read in the past twelvemonth (because I don't think you all have that kind of time), here are the best ones:

  1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin: This is a sweet and moving story of a book store owner who suddenly becomes a father. If you're a reader, this book is for you. 
  2. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak: Words are powerful, even when the world is falling apart. This book is captivating and beautiful.
  3. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline: I adored this modern epic. It's a great ride.
  4. The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon: When words are commercialized, the effects are terrifying.
  5. Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow: Even though this book was written during the height of Patriot Act paranoia, it's still chillingly relevant. Plus, it's good, geeky fun.
  6. Longbourn, by Jo Baker: Writing anything new about Pride and Prejudice is next to impossible, but Jo Baker has created something amazing in her tale of the Bennett family's servants.
  7. Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux: This is a delightfully bizarre story of resurrection and writing.
  8. In Paradise, by Peter Matthiessen: Holocaust literature will always be unsettling and vexed and unmoving, but this is one of the few that can offer catharsis.
  9. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl: I love ambiguous mysteries; you get more than one story for your money. 
  10. The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter: These are the the best fairy tale retellings I've ever found.


Real relaxation

By Robert Wagt
There is nothing more truly refreshing after a semester of non-stop work and work travel and work and projects and work than a week off to just stay home and read books. I cleared several books off of my to-read queue and my to-review list. (Not nearly enough, of course, but progress is progress.)

In two days, I head back to work at the university library—just in time for the fall semester to begin. In a week, my "book year" comes to an end and I'll be publishing the list of everything I read since the beginning of last September. (So there's still time for me to put a few more books down on on the list.)

A week off with nothing to do but read has been marvelous. I haven't had one of these for a while because I've been taking more traditional vacations. A week is just the right amount of time. I'm ready to reengage with all the projects I've got waiting for me.

Besides, the library is where my copies of Booklist and Publishers' Weekly are waiting for me. I need to replenish my to-read list.

The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill

The Beautiful Land
The first rule of time travel should be "Do not fuck with time travel." The same goes for playing around with alternate timelines, quantum wormholes, and anything else that might mess up cause and effect. Unfortunately, no one told Charles Yates and the other owners of the Axon Corporation. Once everything absolutely goes to hell, it's up to explorer Takahiro O'Leary (yeah) and shell-shocked translator, Samira Moheb to save all the timelines in The Beautiful Land, by Alan Averill.

Takahiro was a reality TV star who made his living venturing into dangerous places before it all went south. He gets a call from the Axon Corporation at a very opportune moment. They promise that he'll be able to explore places no one has ever been before. So, he says yes. Averill then jumps ahead to show us Samira in a therapy session. In addition to PTSD, she compulsively cleans everything, cracks all of her knuckles when under pressure, and can't sleep except on the subway. These are our two unlucky heros.

When we next see Takahiro, he's just stolen a portable device that lets him jump in and out of other timelines. He's just found out about the Axon Corporation's master plan. They intend to overwrite reality with a version in which they run the entire world. Unbeknownst to them, Yates has his own master plan. That plan, unfortunately, leads to the collapse of all alternate realities and the potential end of our own.

As I read The Beautiful Land, I thought that this would make an incredible movie. Characters race across the globe and across timelines in order to save their home reality. There are monstrous black birds that are killing every living thing they can get their talons on. The baddies are really, really bad. The visuals would be truly spectacular.

A Little Folly, by Jude Morgan

A Little Folly
Some might say that Louisa and Valentine Carnell have had an easy upbringing: their father told them what to do, think, and say every day of their lives. It's oppressive, but they lead sheltered lives. After Sir Clement gives himself an apoplexy being angry with a groom, Louisa and Valentine hardly know what to do with themselves in Jude Morgan's delightful A Little Folly. Valentine proposes that they live. But first, they have to learn how to live for themselves.

The young Carnells' scheme begins simply enough. They get rid of their father's ugly fire screen. Then they do a little redecorating. Louisa starts speaking her mind to the man her father intended for her, Mr. Lynley, and lets him know that she doesn't like him at all. Then Valentine invites their cousins to stay. Even when they accept the cousins' invitation to stay—indefinitely—with them, there is nothing to reproach them with. Mr. Lynley tries to dissuade them from their friendship with Lady Harriet Eversholt, because she is separated from her husband (a shocking thing in only recently post-Napoleonic Europe). Louisa has had enough of being told what to do and spurns Mr. Lynley's advice in the strongest language she can bring herself to use.

Once the Carnells arrive in London, their lives become much more complicated. Louisa learns more about Mr. Lynley's true nature and meets his intriguing brother. Valentine pursues his attraction to Lady Harriet into her faro-bank and becomes a member of London's dandy scene. Louisa is more sensible, but she can't bring herself to do more than giver her brother advice. Neither of them can bear to be told what to do. Fortunately, Louisa has an ally in an old family friend: Mr. Tresilian.

Morgan has the language and manners of the Regency era down, even to the curious punctuation and roundabout speech. Her characters are hilarious. Mr. Tresilian and Louisa in particular had me laughing out loud at their bons mots and wit. I could quote, but there are too many brilliant bits to quote! There are shades of Austen her. (Austen threw a long shadow over any romance set in this time period.) But Morgan doesn't mimic Austen's plot arcs or characters. A Little Folly has a lot of originality. I had a great time reading it and wouldn't have minded staying a few more chapters.

I do wish Morgan had decided to name the book Influence and Iniquity, or something like that. Probably would have been too on the nose, though.


The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier

The Frozen Dead
Martin Servaz is not happy to be called out to the remote village of Saint-Martin-des-Comminges when a mutilated body is discovered at the local hydroelectric plant. He's even less happy when he finds out that everyone's been scrambled for a horse. The man who owns the horse is rich and connected and Servaz resents being taken away from what he considers a real case to deal with it. Meanwhile. Dr. Diane Berg has just arrived to take up her post at the Wargnier Institute (just outside of Saint-Martin) for patients who are so violent and unbalanced that no one else can handle them. There seems to be no link between the two characters until crime scene analysts find DNA from one of the most dangerous men in Wargnier. The Frozen Dead, by Bernard Minier, follows two paths. Servaz investigates from outside the Institute and Berg follows the clues inside the disturbing prison hospital.

After the horse was killed and mutilated, a local pharmacist is found hanging from a bridge. Then Servaz receives an unusual tip from Julian Hirtmann, whose DNA was found at the first crime scene. Hirtmann reminded me strongly of Hannibal Lecter. He's an urbane Swiss serial murderer who knows much more than he lets on. He drops hints to the investigators to get them on the right track. He and Berg also seem to develop a Lecter and Starling-like rapport. Servaz has his own source of information: a former investigating judge who seems to know everyone's secrets. Though both investigators have help, neither source is too forthcoming. Berg starts to dig through the paper work at Wargnier. Servaz has forensics, old crime scenes, and his own ability to make connections. Nothing is easy for either character.

Most mysteries I've read are very focused. They center on the lead investigator, so closely that it seems you're riding the detective's shoulder as he or she figures out what's going on. In comparison, The Frozen Dead is a diffuse book. In addition to following Servaz and Berg, we also spend time with Servaz assistant. And instead of just focusing on the main crimes, Servaz is also trying to figure out what's going on with his daughter's mood changes and criminal complaints against the victims from decades past. Meanwhile, Diane is also investigating the unusual and possibly illegal "treatments" at Wargnier. She's been told that the men in the Institute are often resistant to psychoactive drugs. Patients are being prescribed doses that would knock out large barnyard animals. But that's nothing compared to the "treatment" for the men in Unit A: electroshock without anesthesia.

At times, The Frozen Dead feels overstuffed, but the chaos around Servaz and Berg creates an atmosphere of confusion and urgency that make the book feel much closer to reality than its companions in the genre. Minier is skilled at bringing the disparate parts of The Frozen Dead together. Though his main investigators don't meet until near the very end of the book, I wasn't frustrated. I was too interested in trying to put the pieces together myself.

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


The Resurrectionist, by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist
Medicine, until very recently, was very medieval. There were no ethical boards and the hunt for cadavers lead to a case of serial murders so notorious that people still know the names Burke and Hare. Matters were no different in the American south, except that medical colleges often used deceased slaves in their anatomy courses and experimented on the living in "charity" hospitals. Matthew Guinn's The Resurrectionist tells the story of what happens at one (fictional) medical college in Columbia, South Carolina, when workers find the remains of dozens of bodies buried beneath the administration building. In one thread of the novel, Dr. Jacob Thacker is serving out his probation after being caught stealing and using Xanax in the public relations office at South Carolina Medical College. In the other, Nemo Johnston—who is owned by the university—works as their resurrection man by procuring bodies for the anatomy courses. Guinn switches back and forth between the two as Thacker follows the historical trail to find out who is buried in the basement.

The head of the College, Dr. Frederick Johnston, decides to solve the school's cadaver deficit by purchasing a slave to be their resurrectionist. He discovers Cudjo at the plantation of a man with a gangrenous toe and brokers a deal while his patient is woozy with laudanum. Cudjo decides to rename himself Nemo, after the doctor tells him his name is too African. The doctor pays Cudjo well, even buying him a house, in exchange for keeping silent about the college's dirty business. A few years later, Nemo is teaching anatomy—much to the dismay of the white students. Guinn is not shy about showing just how vicious whites were towards the blacks. Nemo is not a man to take it lying down. Due to his position, he has much more latitude to register his feelings towards the whites. His story is so interesting that I wish that the entirety of The Resurrectionist was about him.

In the present, Jacob is given the task of keeping the discovery of the bodies quiet. His boss holds his probation over Jacob's head. All Jacob has to do is keep his nose clean for another year and he can go back to practicing medicine. But there are enough people around him that won't let him cover things up. An archaeologist arrives to document the site. Then a local minister and black community leader shows up and announces that they will hold a demonstration. As he must, Jacob gives in to the pangs of conscious and does the right thing.

The inspiration for The Resurrectionist comes, in part, from the 1910 Flexner Report. The report began as an attempt to stop colleges from turning out so many poorly trained doctors. In the end, it exposed reprehensible acts of malpractice and unethical and illegal behavior. (According to Jacob, it still makes for a gripping read.)


Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

Help for the Haunted
Sylvie Mason's parents were murdered in February, 1989, and she's been lying ever since. Sylvie told the police that she saw a man who had been harassing the possession/haunting experts since the previous fall at the church where they died. But when a witness places that man far from the scene of the crime, Sylvie's lies—told to preserve family secrets and placate her volatile older sister—start to break down. John Searles' Help for the Haunted shows us how Sylvie finally finds the truth.

Sylvester and Rose Mason are notorious. Both have been seeing ghosts since they were teenagers. Sylvester first saw them in his family's movie theater. Rose would get "feelings" about people and things. Together, they travel the country lecturing on the supernatural and helping people who ask. After a disturbing incident with a nanny, the Masons start to take their daughters on the road with them. Rose is clearly troubled. She chafes against her father's restrictions and her parents' religion. For a time, she finds and repeats bizarre and controversial passages from the Bible until father explosively looses his temper. Sylvie is caught in the middle of it all, trying to live up to her parents' expectations of their "good girl."

Help for the Haunted is told in a roundabout fashion as Sylvie asks questions and remembers what happened in the year leading up to the murders. Rose's relationship with her parents deteriorates, until they send her away to a place called Saint Julia's. Then they take in Abigail, the daughter of a roving minister who believes his daughter is possessed. At this point, Sylvie finally starts to question her parent's work, especially after Abigail disappears and the minister starts following and calling the Masons to find out what happened. As Sylvie pursues her own investigation, she is questioned by the police and the family lawyer in preparation for the trial against her parents' accused murderer. The official story collapses when Sylvie starts to look more closely at her abrasive, damaged sister. Everything comes back to Rose, in the end.

At more than 600 pages, there's a lot of story in Help for the Haunted, but it didn't feel overlong. The Masons are a complex family and it takes a lot of effort for Sylvie to question what she's been told all her life and what her sister and others tell her after the murders. Though the Masons specialized in helping others, it becomes clear that the family could do with some rescuing of their own. They are far from saints, though Sylvester would like everyone to think so. Everything Sylvie believes at the beginning of the book is turned upside down and inside out by the end.

The art of reading satire, part II: The Facebook tag

Last week, I wrote about how many people (as evidenced by reactions and linking on social media) are completely missing the satirical element. So, when I saw a flurry of stories on the blogs and sites I follow about a tag that's been appearing on Facebook to indicate satire, I laughed uproariously. Here are a few:



The Cartographer of No Man's Land, by P.S. Duffy

The Cartographer of No Man's Land
Angus McGrath has always lived for other people. In Snag Harbor, Nova Scotia, he plies a coastal trader boat for his father. He keeps his wife on an even keep. He cares for a wayward cousin's child. And when his brother-in-law, Ebbin, disappears after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Angus signs up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force to go looking for him. His recruiter promises that he will be assigned safely behind the lines as a cartographer—but that plan goes awry immediately. As P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land opens, McGrath has been promoted to lieutenant to replace the hundred of dead officers and shipped of to the front.

As it is for every new recruit, the front is a shock for Angus. Some of his men are breaking down from shell shock. Others are just breaking down. Angus' instinct is to care for those around him and he develops a deep attachment to the men in his command. On the other side of the Atlantic, Duffy shows us how Angus' son, Simon Peter, is carrying on at home. As the women get wrapped up in knitting woolens and packing comfort boxes for the soldiers, the men of Snag Harbor start to grow suspicious of the German teacher. It doesn't matter to any one except Simon that Mr. Heist is a naturalized Canadian. Rumors begin to spread about what Mr. Heist is up to with his Fresnel lens and telescope.

Duffy switches perspectives between Angus and Simon as they are forced to grow up. Angus soon seems more at home at the front than he was back in Snag Harbor. He makes a friend in his major, Conlon, and they help keep each other sane in spite of the absurdities of war:
"It's insights like that that make this war worth it, eh?" [said Conlon]
"Exactly," Angus smiled. "Where would we be without irony?"
"Continuously drunk, I'm afraid." (164*)
Conlon finds comfort in an old copy of The Iliad, and he's not the first (fictional) soldier to do so. It's a surprise to me, considering how much of it is devoted to honor and glory. And yet The Iliad also has moments in which characters discuss the pointlessness and tragedy of war. Meanwhile, Simon grows into a young man with his own ideas and finds himself at odds with most of the adults around him. They are so set in their ideas that they can't see how circumstances make all the difference.

I can't say much more about The Cartographer of No Man's Land without spoiling the ending. In a war novel, after all, you can't know who will survive without loosing the nail-biting sympathy you feel for the characters. (I did know beforehand that many Canadians were killed in battle at Passchendaele. I worried as I saw the dates tick by that Angus and his men might end up there. I can say that this doesn't happen to Angus.)

This morning, I posted some questions that I had about World War I literature written by survivors and veterans versus historical fiction written much later. I still have questions. Duffy does assign a lot of symbolic weight to objects and events that veterans' literature tends not to do. At times, I was irritated by how Duffy would spell out the subtext. Still, The Cartographer of No Man's Land was a thought-provoking read. It's a worthy addition to the genre.


* From the Kindle edition. Page numbers are approximate.

Thoughts on World War I Literature

Historical fiction—no matter how well written—must always fall short of fiction written by people who actually experienced what they're writing about. Or maybe I only think that because I've read such excellent literature written by survivors of World War I that the historical fiction just pales in comparison. Earlier this year, I read the republished novel Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier, and last night I started reading P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land

The contemporary fiction about World War I is nihilistic, brutal, and unforgiving. It shines a harsh light on the absurdities of the tactics, the jingoism, death, and conditions. The historical fiction doesn't capture the same feeling. Some of the novels are overly poetic and try to assign a higher meaning to events veterans would say don't mean anything at all. I wonder if my feelings about this come from the fact that there's a wealth of literature from World War I combatants. I don't have the same feelings about Civil War or World War II literature. Is World War I so different from other wars? Is it just because there were so many writers who were in the trenches? Is it because the veterans' literature is cathartic and the historical fiction is purely literature?

A poppy was made for every British casualty in World War I and placed at the Tower of London for the centennial.


The Day of Atonement, by David Liss

The Day of Atonement
In 1745, Lisbon is still in the firm grip of the Inquisition. (The Portuguese Inquisition was not officially disbanded until 1821.) Families that have been converted for generations are still persecuted as "Judaizers." Of course, most people are arrested by the Inquisition for other reasons: denouncers getting revenge or seeking profit, victims of torture giving up names to escape further punishment, or people arrested to get leverage on other people. Lisbon is a pit of vipers. Arrest could happen any moment, but it still comes as a shock to Sebastião Raposa when his father is taken by the Inquisition. His mother calls in a last favor to get Sebastião on a packet boat to England. He never sees them again. David Liss's The Day of Atonement is Sebastião's tale of revenge against the people who destroyed his family.

Ten years later, Sebastian Foxx is a trained thief taker. (He apprenticed to Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of Liss' other novels.) He's been saving as much as he can and heads back to Lisbon after realizing that he will never be free of what happened to him there. His plan is simple: to murder Pedro Azinheiro, the Inquisitor who arrested his parents and left them to die of disease in their prisons. But, if fiction has taught us nothing else, the path to revenge is never a straight, uncomplicated one. Even before he lands in the city, agents of the Inquisition want to use him. When he finally arrives on dry land and starts to look up old contacts, Sebastian learns that his father's arrest was part of a plot to steal his fortune. Then, the man who smuggled him out of Lisbon asks Sebastian to help him with his own revenge.

Sebastian is a conflicted man. Strangely, he hopes that getting revenge will give him back his ability to feel fear. For ten years, he's been driven by anger. He'll take risks no one else will, because he doesn't have anything to lose. Though he is ruled by his anger, Sebastian is constantly thinking about his actions and the actions of the people around him. It's just as well, because Lisbon is still the cutthroat city he escaped.

Jurema Oliviera's illustration of Lisbon after the earthquake.
The first two thirds of The Day of Atonement are gripping, but the end is absolutely brilliant. At the moment when Sebastian has cornered the priest Azinheiro, the ground begins to shake and roar. On the first of November in 1755, an estimated 8.5 to 9.0 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks destroyed Lisbon. The city erupts into chaos. All the plans that Sebastian and his allies and enemies put into place collapse. But getting out of Lisbon has never been easy and Sebastian has finally learned what it feels like to have something to lose.

The Day of Atonement is the kind of historical fiction I absolutely adore. Liss brings the city and the time to extraordinary life. Sebastian is an incredible character and the rest of the dramatis personae are just as good. I was so hooked by the story that the earthquake caught me as much by surprise as it did the characters. This is a fantastic book. 

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


The Broken Hours, by Jacqueline Baker

The Broken Hours
H.P. Lovecraft is experiencing a revival. The strange author of even stranger stories had a life, it seems, that was crying out to be turned into fiction. Within the last year, I've seen Lovecraft turned into a character in stories based in his fiction. His settings have been revived for even more novels. Jacqueline Baker's The Broken Hours is a literary turn on this little renaissance. Her novel is set in the last year of Lovecraft's life, when he was furthest down on his luck and dying of cancer. The Broken Hours sent me scurrying to Lovecraft's biography more than once—and, consequently, had me wondering what was fictional and real more than once, too.

1936 wasn't the worst year of the Great Depression, but work was still scarce. Arthor P. Crandle is happy to get any job he can. Strangely, he never meets his employer in person. He's hired by phone and given instructions by letter. It takes him a while to work out that his new employer is a writer, let alone that he's been hired by H.P. Lovecraft. Arthor's job is to type up Lovecraft's correspondence and manuscripts, run errands, help keep the boarding house tidy, and occasionally warm up food for the horror writer. It's hardly onerous work. As soon as Arthor arrives in Providence, however, he learns that his job is not as straightforward as it seems.

There are warnings everywhere. The neighbors are suspicious and angry. The boarding house is oppressive, filthy and full of strange smells. Then Arthor starts to see people who aren't there. A malevolent girl seems to haunt the house. When Lovecraft asks Arthor to deliver letters to his mother, the story gets even stranger. First, the address on the letters is for Butler House: an asylum. Then a the head nurse tells Arthor that Mrs. Lovecraft has been dead for almost twenty years.

At this point, I twigged to what was going on. I wasn't disappointed, per se. But the ambiguous and sinister atmosphere Baker had spent her time creating dissipated immediately. The best horror story, I think, are the ones that stay firmly on the line between the supernatural and mundane reality. There might be ghosts. It might just be in your narrator's head. The fun is trying to work out if the hallucinations are really there or what might have caused the narrator to go off the rails. It's almost a let down to figure out what's really going on. At least, for me.

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


City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs
Gods are complicated things. More so in Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs. Generations before the book opened, three of the Continent's divinities were killed. The weather changed. Geography shifted. Plagues came and decimated the population. Then their conquerors classified their history and banned any expression of their religions. The plan to eradicate even the memories of the divinities has not worked. So when Shara Komayd and her "secretary" Sigurd arrive in Bulikov, the City of Stairs, they're walking into a powder keg primed to blow.

Saypur has occupied the Continent for decades, but their policy is to only enforce the laws banning the old religions. Without their gods, Continentals have stagnated since the war with their former slave colony. They haven't forgotten a thing, it seems. When a historian is given permission to investigate their history in Bulikov, it's only a matter of time before someone gets angry enough to do something. He is murdered after only a few months in the city and Shara Komayd—a descendant of the man who killed the gods—takes on the investigation.

Shara dives right in. Not only was the victim a friend of hers, and an agent she ran, the case gives her the opportunity to learn more about her passion: the divinities and the miracles that still sometimes work. Before long, it's clear that this is not a simple case of murder. Shara is frequently stymied and has to rely on her violent "secretary" to get results. This is not unusual for the intelligence officer, but even supposed allies seem to be working against her. A group of men who follow the divinity of punishment are conspiring to take revenge on Saypur. Parts of the city that were thought destroyed are still accessible with the right signs and symbols. And gods that everyone thought were dead turn out to be very much alive.

I adore fantasy novels that are set in worlds with rich histories. Bennett's Continent and Bulikov are wonderfully real and unreal at the same time. As City of Stairs progresses, layers are peeled back to reveal just how complex the world is. Even though she prides herself on her education, Shara has to learn that much of what she was taught was a lie to preserve the status quo. She has to question everything in order to find the truth. Then comes the hard part: she has to act on it.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 9 September 2014.


The cat is out of the bag...and wearing a kilt

I can't remember when I first started reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.Years ago. And though I normally push the books I like into the hands of potential readers almost as soon as I've finished with it, I don't usually recommend Outlander and its sequels to people. I suspect it's because 1) it's a gooey love story at heart, 2) I don't want people to know just how much I love the gooey love story, and 3) the ending of the first book is challenging to read.

A picture Outlander fans have been waiting two decades for.
Catriona Balfe as Claire Beauchamp and Sam Heughan as 
Jamie Fraser.
I shouldn't have been surprised when the entire Outlander fandom came out into the open when the Starz series premiered at the beginning of August. To be honest, I've been avoiding the fandom because even I can't handle their fanaticism. We fans can be embarrassing. Since I watched the first episode of the series, I've been diving headlong into the fandom because I just can't help myself.

Not only have I been following (stalking) Outlander stuff online, I seem to be stumbling over Outlander fans in real life. I got a fellow reader hooked on the series a few weeks ago. (I saw her reading the book one day and she later tweeted that she couldn't stop reading.) Then a woman I was giving a tour of the library to noticed our collection of the series and said, "I see you've got the classics."

This post isn't to hype the series. At this point, Outlander doesn't need any more hype now that the kilt-ogling Heughligans* are out in force. More than anything, the reaction to the Starz series renews my faith in the connection people can have with books. The fans of the book and TV series are not kids; these are not children's or young adult books. These are books people fell in love with as adults. The joy readers take in the ongoing saga just proves to me that a reader's ability to bond with a book never goes away, so long as they find the right book.


* Google this if you dare.


Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

There have always been stories about people who could do incredible things under pressure: lift cars off children, people surviving accidents that should have killed them, etc. No one thinks much of it when Eli Cardale decides to make these extraordinary people the subject of his senior thesis. His friend, Victor Vale, just thinks it's a way for Eli to test his boundaries with their biology professor. This is just the backstory behind V.E. Schwab's explosive tale of heroes and villains, Vicious.

Vicious opens ten years after Eli began his research on ExtraOrdinaries, EOs. Victor has just been released from prison and is now hunting Eli down. Through flashbacks, we learn that Eli traced the origin of EOs to near death experiences and an incredible urge to live. Both boys try it out. Eli revives from his death in an ice-filled bathtub with the ability to instantly heal any wound. Victor's death doesn't go so well. Eli's girlfriend, Angie, helps him electrocute himself. When Victor revives, he finds he had the ability to control pain—but he accidentally kills Angie. Eli believes that his ability is god given. Victor is more practical. Unfortunately, Eli's abilities, religions convictions, and Angie's death turn him into a crusading angel. He spends the next ten years, while Victor is in prison, hunting down EOs.

In Vicious' present, Eli and Victor are on a collision course. Victor has spent ten years plotting how to kill Eli and he sets a midnight deadline for the showdown. Schwab still skips back in time to show us the histories of the other characters in the novel: a girl who can bring the dead back to life, a soldier who can walk through shadows, a young woman who can command others to do her bidding. There are no rules in this world. Other than the EO origin, Schwab stays far away from the usual superhero tropes. In fact, many of the EOs have a hard time not becoming sociopaths as, when they come back from their deaths, they find that there's something missing inside them.

Vicious is a brilliant take on a gritty world of superheroes who are just trying to figure out how to deal with their unwanted abilities. This is the kind of book you blaze through just to see what's going to happen next. The last third of the novel is full of twists and turns that keep the tension humming along. What I loved best about Vicious was how Schwab kept her characters wondering about right and wrong even as they seek revenge and justice. No one is an absolute hero or villain here; it's all a matter of perspective.


The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayer
Baruch Kotler has just arrived in Yalta to find that his hotel reservation has evaporated. His young mistress, Leora, wants to try the other hotels in the Crimean resort town but Baruch is ready to surrender and catch a bus back to the airport. At the station, a woman offers them a room for the week. Later that night, however, Baruch learns that he is staying in the house of the man who denounced him in the 1970s. David Bezmozgis' The Betrayers takes place over just a few days as Baruch confronts his denouncer, his denoucer tries to make a living, and Leora falls out of love with her hero.

Baruch was just another refusenik when Vladimir wrote an article calling him a Zionist and American spy for that was printed in Izvestia. Baruch spent the next thirteen years in Soviet prisons. His wife, Miriam, campaigned tirelessly to have him released. Baruch then went on to become a minister in the Israeli Knesset. As The Betrayers spin out the details of how Baruch and Leora came to be in Yalta, we learn that Baruch refused to assent to an operation that would lead to the destruction of Israeli settlements by Israeli soldiers. A man tries to blackmail him into changing his mind, threatening to expose his affair. Baruch refuses again, and flees to the Crimea with Leora.

As soon as they arrive, Leora and Baruch realize that they've made a mistake. What they hoped would be a week out of the spotlight, a little honeymoon, becomes anything but. Everyone in this book has betrayed someone. But will confronting one's betrayer fix anything? Who is Baruch, or Leora, to grant forgiveness to anyone? The Betrayers is a short book, but it's full of hard-to-answer questions.  

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

Gutenberg's Apprentice, by Alix Christie

Gutenberg's Apprentice
In 1485, Peter Schoeffer visits a friend at Sponheim Monastery and takes the opportunity to set the record straight about his work with Johann Gutenberg. Thirty years after Gutenberg's Biblia latina was published, the man is famous as the inventor of moveable type. Schoeffer does not remember the man fondly. As he recounts the real story to Trithemius, we get to see the squabbling and backstabbing and labor that went into what would be the most famous book ever printed. Alix Christie's Gutenberg's Apprentice is a blend of fiction and real history. It can be a little dry at times, but the story is fascinating. Printing is taken for granted in our century, especially now the digital publishing has taken over. Gutenberg and his crew had to make several innovative leaps in order to bring the Biblia latina to the world. 

We meet Peter Schoeffer in 1450, as he is returning to Mainz after apprenticing to be a scribe in Paris. He is not happy. He loves his work but he can't say no to his adopted father, Johann Fust. His worst fears come true when Fust informs him that he will be apprenticing with Fust's new business partner, Gutenberg, on his new project. Peter likes the project even less when he learns what Gutenberg and Fust are up to. Moveable type will be the end of scribes. At first, Peter views printing as soulless, cheap, unworthy of being used to create sacred texts. It doesn't help that his first job in the workshop is smelting metals for the type.

Printers, c. 1568.
As Peter's responsibilities at the workshop increase, he finds his place. Peter grows to view printing as his calling once they start to work on the Biblia latina. Unfortunately, just as the project gains traction, the partnership between Fust and Gutenberg begins to disintegrate. Printing 180 copies of the Biblia takes two years. They manage to complete the project, but just barely. Fust nearly goes bankrupt and Gutenberg compromises their secrecy to print an order of indulgences for the local Archbishop to make some quick guilders. 

It's impossible not to see the conflict between scribes and printers as analogous to the current one between print books and ebooks. Gutenberg's Apprentice doesn't settle the debate, of course. Instead, it shows that printing was inevitable. At one point, Peter muses that all it would take was for some woodcut artist to decide to cut the elements of the block apart to work out moveable type. Christie doesn't mention the Chinese or the Koreans at all, but they'd already worked out moveable type by this time. I also saw some of the origins of the Reformation here, as Peter gets offended at the indulgence trade. Introducing a cheaper, easily available copy of the Bible to Peter's world is like introducing a match to an arsenal.

What Christie does do in this book is give personality back to the founders of Western printing as we know it. Gutenberg is portrayed as a manic genius who gets bored with ideas once they're worked out. Fust is a frustrated merchant who still believes in what the project could grow into. Peter is an artisan, who wants to make the Biblia as beautiful as possible, to give soul to printing. You will need to be prepared for a lot of medieval German and ecclesiastical politics and read up on indulgences as you read Gutenberg's Apprentice.

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