The Uninvited Guests, by Sadie Jones

The Uninvited Guests
Emerald Torrington-Swift could never have imagined than her twentieth birthday party would end up like this. I certainly wasn't expecting what happened. The Uninvited Guests, by Sadie Jones, begins on an ordinary day in 1912 and ends the next morning with the families' lives turned upside down.

The unhappy Torrington-Swift clan lives in remote Sterne, a country house that is costing them much more money than they can afford. Edward Swift, the new patriarch is travelling into Manchester for the day, to beg a loan from a hated industrialist to save the old pile. Emerald is left behind to make sure the family doesn't disgrace themselves in front of their guests. Her mother is a rude nouveau riche. Her brother, Clovis, is even worse. Her younger sister, Smudge, uses the opportunity of everyone's distraction to take a horse up to her room to make a portrait. Meanwhile, the reduced number of servants has to make up a respectable birthday dinner.

And then, Emerald receives word that a large number of survivors of a nearby train crash is about to descend upon them in need of food and lodging until they can be sent on to their destinations.

The Uninvited Guests begins as an Edwardian comedy of manners, but it soon becomes clear that there is something more sinister going on. One of the survivors of the train crash, a man whose name keeps slipping everyone's mind, inveigles his way into the birthday party. His sense of humor is sharp and frequently cuts the other guests. He hints at dark secrets. And his effect on the lady of the house, Emerald's mother Charlotte, is positively devastating.

Then things get strange.

At the beginning of The Uninvited Guests, I was amused by Jones' prickly and unexpected humor. It's as if the characters know they're all playing parts in a big charade, but they have to keep playing just so that they don't let the side down. Everyone has to keep up appearances because, heavens, what would the neighbors think if they found out about the true state of the Torrington-Swifts' state of affairs?

Salamander, by Thomas Wharton

It's hard to know what to make of Thomas Wharton's Salamander. Even two days after I finished reading it, it's still in my brain. It's probably a good thing I was in a hotel that was stingy about Internet, or I would have rushed out a review right away. Perhaps the only definitive thing I can say about Salamander is that it is a that might have the power to turn non-readers into bibliophiles with its blend of fairy tale, high adventure, philosophy, and love.

Salamander is a book of layers. The first layer opens in Montreal, during the French and Indian Wars. An English colonel has come upon a bookstore, with a lone woman picking through the books to find an unnamed book. He asks her what she's doing in a city under siege and ends up listening to the strange story of her live. She has to go back more than twenty years, because her story begins with her parents. Her father was a printer from London.

Nicholas Flood delights in making unusual books. His hobby secures him a commission from Count Ostrov of Slovakia. Nicholas travels to Hrad Ostrov to print an infinite book—a book that never ends. The Count will foot the bill and give Nicholas room and board while he figures out how to complete this task. As if this wasn't enough of a challenge, Nicholas has to content with the strange clockwork hrad the count has built around himself. The whole building shifts on a timetable. Beds travel past each other in the night. Walls filled with book-lined shelves appear and vanish over the course of the day. Even more distracting than the clockwork is the count's daughter.

The layers multiply as the lovers are separated. Their daughter, Pica, becomes the new main character. Pica, Nicholas, and their allies travel the world looking for supplies Nicholas needs to create his infinite book and find his lost love. Pica tells us the story of almost everyone they meet. (The author's note at the end of Salamander cites Wharton's inspirations for the various stories in works like Italian Folktales, by Italo Calvino; The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin; and The Scholars, by Wu Ching-Tzu.) I lost count of how deep Pica took us.

Nothing ever went the way I expected it to. Though it has sections that represent so many different genres, events and characters resisted convention left and right. There's a section of the book that perfectly describes the experience of reading:
Sometimes you wish to escape to another part of the book. 
You stop reading and riffle the pages, catching sight of the story as it races ahead, not above the world but through it, through forests and complications, the chaos of intentions and cities. 
As you near the last few pages you are hurtling through the book at increasing speed, until all is a blur of restlessness, and then suddenly your thumb loses its grip and you sail out of the story and back into yourself. The book is once again a fragile vessel of cloth and paper. You have gone everywhere and nowhere. (256*)
So, because or in spite of Wharton's virtuosity in Salamander, he captures a piece of what it is to deeply love reading, to fall into a story. I think this is what Salamander is about, in its heart. With its layers and multiple genres, Salamander is almost an infinite book it contains so much. This is what readers look for when we open up a new volume: a little piece of the infinite world around us. But with better dialog. And less boredom.


* Page number is approximate. I was reading the kindle editon.


Cannonbridge, by Jonathan Barnes

On of the things that drives people nuts about Charles Dickens is the sheer number of coincidences in his novels. Inheritances come out of nowhere. Relatives meet by chance in unlikely places. Etc. etc. But because he’s Dickens, ol’ Charles can get away with a lot. I thought of this a lot in Jonathan Barnes’ Cannonbridge. There are a lot of stunning (as in, they will stun you as you read this book) coincidences in Cannonbridge. Barnes is no Dickens, however. But by the end of the book, Barnes reveals a ballsy ending to explain just how a formerly unknown Victorian author managed to meet Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, a young Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of a century—all without ageing.

 Toby Judd is a sad sack professor at a small university in England who is constantly overshadowed by his rival, Dr. J.J. Salazar. Both men study the life and work of Matthew Cannonbridge. This mysterious author seems to appear and disappear from the historical record after barging in on the leading literary lights of the day. Cannonbridge’s novels and poems are much loved and he is considered the greatest writer of his age. The fact that he only sporadically appears in the historical record doesn't seem to have caused the same problems that poor Shakespeare has had.

After Judd’s wife leaves him for Salazar—just to twist the knife just a little bit more—Judd becomes disillusioned with Cannonbridge. When he looks more closely, the author’s novels just aren’t that good. Eventually Judd gives a lecture, in which he class that the great author is a hoax. This is the beginning of Judd’s surreal adventure. Barnes switches back and forth between Judd’s digging more deeply into the Cannonbridge conspiracy and episodes from Cannonbridge’s increasingly villainous life.

For a while, I thought Cannonbridge was some kind of time travelling English major. (That’s why I chose the book from NetGalley. I would read the hell out of that book.) But the truth, as Judd discovers, is much weirder than that. To say any more than that would ruin this strange—and highly entertaining—book. I will say that not everyone is going to buy the ending. I daresay that some readers will want to toss their copies across the room in outrage. I didn’t go quite that far. (Because I read this on the plane to Chicago.) There was some heavy eye-rolling, though.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.


A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

This review only covers the first five chapters of V.E. Schwab's new novel, A Darker Shade of Magic.

A Darker Shade of Magic
There are four Londons. Grey London is the one we know. Red London is full of magic. White London is a brutal place that's dying. Black London was cut off centuries ago, taken over by magic. Kell is one of the few people who can walk between the Londons and he's employed as a royal messenger. Kell is also our guide as we learn about the four Londons and their dangers. The five chapters I read of A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, made me very curious about what was going to happen next. 

There's not much plot and anything I might say about the overall shape of A Darker Shade of Magic would be a guess. Hints in the novel, the cover, and the title lead me to think that Kell and the other characters will somehow end up in Black London. Red, Grey, and White London are not all sunshine and roses. Schwab gives her characters real stakes to play for.

If A Darker Shade of Magic is written with same sort of innovation (and I have no reason to think it's not) that Schwab's first novel, Vicious, this will be a wonderfully original read. Vicious was a dark and philosophical version of a superhero story. A Darker Shade of Magic isn't in the same genre, so I can't pick up any clues about the direction of the book that way.

I've clearly been spoiled by NetGalley and Edelweiss. I hate haven't to wait for publication day to read a book like this one.

I received a free copy of this preview from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released 24 February 2015.

3,000 ways to drive a reader nuts

There comes a point in every reader's life where they realize that they won't be able to read every book they might want to read. Last spring and summer, before his retirement, one of our librarians talked frequently about culling their to-read list to just the "best books." Why waste time on anything but the best? this librarian asked. Other than feeling a bit sad for this librarian, that they didn't feel they had time for guilty print pleasures, I didn't think much of this sentiment until I read Beulah Maud Devaney's piece for The Guardian, "Three Thousand Reasons to Choose Your Reading Carefully."

Skeptical reader is skeptical.
In this article, Devaney dutifully calculates her reading rate, factors in her family's average longevity, and arrives at the figure of 3,000 books as an estimate of the number of books she'll be able to read in her lifetime. (I'm not the only person interested in this article. r/literature has been discussing it, too.) Of all the books ever written and all the books that will be written before Devaney reads her last book, 3,000 is a woefully small number. Most readers I know can't even choose a favorite five books, let along choose the only 3,000 books they'll ever read.

This kind of thinking will send a reader 'round the bend.

The question of what makes a book worthwhile to be one of the 3,000 is highly subjective—though scholars might argue otherwise. The last chapter of Terry Eagleton's How to Read Literature, "Value," contains the author's argument of the futility of trying to classify some books as the "best." Eagleton sets up and knocks down all of these criteria: originality, language, technical skill, asking big questions. The truth is that books go in and out of fashion. Ask a dozen people and you'll get a dozen answers about what a reader should read in their lifetime.

Trying to choose the 3,000 "best" books will not only drive a reader out of their minds. It will also, slowly but inexorably, suck the joy out of reading. Joyce, Proust, Melville, Woolf, and Faulkner are perennial entries on lists of best books. They are not on my lists. I know enough about myself as a reading to know that I would have to force my way through them. I don't know if I'd last a chapter before I was longing to read something else, anything else, even my shampoo bottle, than another chapter of Joyce or Proust. Some readers may adore these writers; I know they're not for me.

I suspect that I'll spend my last reading days reading (or re-reading) books that are pure fun.


The Librarian, by Mikhail Elizarov

The Librarian
If you ask a reader about the experience of reading, he or she might say that a good book will fill up their mind to the point where they can shut out noise and distraction. They might also say that a well-written book will transport them to another world. This is all metaphor (though a certain kind of philosopher would argue with me). I imagine that something like this phenomena was the inspiration for Mikhail Elizarov's The Librarian. In this book, reading can convey special powers on readers of a particular author. Readers fight bloody battles for access to rare books and librarians declare war on each other. How could I not pick up this book?

The Librarian is not an easy book to start reading. The first chapters read like a textbook of alternate history of Soviet literature. We learn about Gromov and his terrible, terrible propagandistic novels about Soviet workers triumphing over adversity—in a censor-approved manner, of course. We are introduced to the curious emotional and physical properties bestowed on readers who fulfil two conditions: reading the book in one sitting from beginning to end and reading every single word without skimming. We are also told about the wars that broke out among the first readers to discover Gromov's books. Once all this backstory is out of the way, we finally meet our narrator, Alexei Vyazintsev.

Alexei enters the world of librarians and readers after the death of his uncle. He travels from the Ukraine to Russia in order to sell his relative's apartment, but strange things begin to happen as soon as he arrives. He witnesses two men who claimed to be interested in buying the apartment being assaulted in the street. He stands frozen on the spot, for Alexei is not a brave man. Then the attackers, who claim to be his protectors, set up a benign house arrest for Alexei and tell him he's the new librarian of their reading room.

Only a few days later, Alexei and his reading room are summoned to a meeting to settle a dispute between rooms. The dispute ends with a vicious confrontation. Guns are prohibited in this battles, but every other weapon or makeshift weapon is allowed. Alexei has no idea what he's gotten himself into. People are killing each other over books by an author he's never heard of before. Being a librarian is far from a quiet profession in Alexei's new universe.

As The Librarian speeds along, a conspiracy coalesces around Alexei and his readers. (It's a Russian novel. Of course there is a conspiracy.) The stakes ratchet up higher and higher as people die all around the new librarian. The ending blindsided me in a way that I'm still not sure I know how I feel about.

I was fascinated by the world Elizarov created in The Librarian, but I wonder at the level of Soviet nostalgia that pervades this book. Alexei learns to psyche himself up for battle by listening to old patriotic hymns. Gromov's novels all praise an idealized worker's state. Members of reading rooms all address each other as comrade. The actual horrors and paranoia of the Soviet state are almost completely omitted. Gulags are mentioned, but this doesn't off-set the pro-Soviet vibe. Of all the puzzling things in this puzzling book, the nostalgia puzzled me the most.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.


The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

The Man Who Was Thursday
After 107 years, satires are hard to fully understand. A reader might be able to figure out the target of the satire, but the details are harder to pin down. Was this reference to someone's clothes a shot at some political figure of the time? Was this snatch of Latin a sneer at an academic or clergyman? I felt this way for much of G.K. Chesterton's twistedly humorous novella, The Man Who Was Thursday. I think I understand it, but I know that a lot of it was lost on me.

Anarchists were the bogeyman of the turn of the twentieth century. Assassinations and assassination attempts were rife. Bombs were being lobbed all over Europe and America—or so it seemed to the middle and upper classes. Our protagonist—not to say hero—is Syme. Syme is the child of radicals and so rebelled by becoming a conformist. He sees disorder and anarchy all around him, but despairs of being able to to anything about it until he meets a policeman who tells him of a special anti-anarchist squad in the police. Syme is immediately recruited and sent off to find some anarchists. He succeeds beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. After only a few days on the job, he finds himself elected to an international council of anarchists.

Syme sweats bullets at the first meeting of seven leading anarchists, all code-named after days of the week. (Syme is Thursday.) Then the president reveals that one of their number is actually a police spy. Over the course of the novella, more and more of the "anarchists" are also uncovered as police operatives. The Man Who Was Thursday grows increasingly absurd as identities are discovered, operatives chase and duel each other in France, and finally confront Sunday—the man behind it all.

At the end, Chesterton pulls one more twist out of his pen and turns the book on its head. And this is where he lost me. I could believe The Man Who Was Thursday as a satirical take on the overblown fear of anarchists. Chesterton had me laughing out loud at the outrageously polite things his characters would say:
"My God!" said the Colonel, "someone has shot at us."
"It need not interrupt conversation," said the gloomy Ratcliffe. (Chapter XII*)
I was reminded of Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome more than once. Syme and his putative allies are hunting anarchists, but that's no reason to let standards slip.

The end of the book, however, just doesn't fit. This is the part of the review where I spoil a novel published in 1908. Syme and the gang track Sunday, the president of the anarchists**, to the man's country house. Monday through Saturday are dressed up in allegorical costumes matching their code-names to the days of creation. Chesterton pulls back the curtain further to reveal that Sunday is a stand-in for god, the police operatives represent the various ways humans seek truth (science, poetry, etc.), and that the only real anarchist in the book is Lucifer in the guise of a Bohemian poet.

As I read the last two chapters of The Man Who Was Thursday, I resented the authorial intrusion in what I was enjoying as a cutting satire of political hysteria. I rolled my eyes more than once as Sunday—sounding an awful lot like Chesterton—drew all the parallels that transformed the story into just one more Christian allegory. Like C.S. Lewis would later on with The Chronicles of Narnia, Chesterton starts to beat his readers about the head with a metaphorical 2x4.

It's books like The Man Who Was Thursday that make me wish I was in the editorial room before the book was published, so that I could try and talk the author out of ruining their book. Readers, read this book for the first thirteen chapters, then stop. Pretend the last two chapters never happened.


* Quotes from the Project Gutenberg edition of The Man Who Was Thursday.
** Yes, president. The anarchists in this novella are surprisingly regimented and organized.

The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson's The Salt Roads, now being re-released by Open Road Media, reads like a blend of novel and poem. Over the course of the book we meet three women who have been touched by the influence of Ezili. Mer is a slave in Haiti sometime before the revolution in 1789. Lemer is a dancer in 1840s Paris and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire. Meritet is a prostitute in third century Alexandria. Ezili is caught between them. As Hopkinson spins out their stories, we learn more about how all four of these (for lack of a better word) entities are connected across time and space.

Mer has the most time on stage in The Salt Roads. Mer is Ginen, but now works in the cane fields and provides medical care for the other enslaved Africans on the plantation. She is bitter and angry, yet she provides tender care for her fellow captives. There is an especially moving and heartbreaking scene midway through The Salt Roads when Mer talks a new captive out of suicide by starvation by explaining the "facts of life" to him. But in spite of her exhaustion and frustration, Mer still listens to the quiet voices of her goddess: Lasirèn, one of the facets of Ezili. Lasirén asks her to re-open the salt roads, the paths that the goddess uses to communicate with her people. As if this wasn't enough of a task for Mer, the woman also has to contend with the growing revolutionary violence all around her.

"Baudelaire's Mistress, Reclining," by Édouard Manet
Jeanne Duval, also known as Lemer, lives a life almost as desperate as Mer's. Jeanne trades her beauty—and sometimes her body—for money and favors from wealthy Parisian whites. She attracts the attention of the poet Charles Baudelaire and becomes his mistress. (Jeanne is an actual historical figure. Her portrait is to the left.) Jeanne is not as overtly sympathetic than Mer, but she is no less trapped by her circumstances than Mer. As a woman of African decent, the daughter of a prostitute, a dancer, Jeanne has nothing to fall back on if her "relationships" fail. She has to cling to others for her clothes, food, and shelter. Later, she also has to rely on her men to care for her as she dies from syphilis. I worried about her the entire time I was reading about her, because she was always just a few days from destitution.

The last woman to feel Ezili's touch is Meritet. We don't learn as much about her as we do about Mer or Jeanne. Of the three, however, she is the one filled with the most vitality. You could even say she's happy most of the time. Ezili's touch leads her to leave her position in Alexandria to travel to Aelia Capitolina (the Roman name for Jerusalem) to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Her pilgrimage leads to a mystical experience in the Judean desert.

In between the chapters about the three woman, Ezili finds herself alternately trapped between the three and in an unknown space where she sees other facets of herself: Hathor, Erzulie, the Virgin Mary, Lasirèn. All are motherly goddesses of love. It was fascinating to learn more about the names scattered through the text and see the historical and theological connections Hopkinson drew. Ezili's passages are also the most poetic. Some pages are just single words. Others are hypnotic passages about the in-between space Ezili inhabits.

You cannot read The Salt Roads quickly. Ezili's sections require you to slow down to fully absorb the meaning. The three women seem different from each other, but the connections and similarities become apparent as the book goes on. The Salt Roads is a startling read (and not just because of the scenes of lesbian love). It's nominally a work of fantasy and historical fiction, but the language is leagues beyond the simple prose of most of the genres.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. This edition will be released 27 January 2015.


Cover Story, Part III: When the Doves Disappeared

This analysis of the cover of When the Doves Disappeared contains spoilers. Caveat lector. 

Every now and then, a brilliantly designed cover will capture my attention just as much as the book's contents. I'm not talking about merely beautiful covers. A brilliant cover will make a browser take a second look, hint at the book's contents but give nothing away, and show originality in a market of covers that tend to blur into one another after a while.

The cover for When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen, designed by Kelly Blair, is brilliant. The colors are somber, as befits a book about Estonia in World War II. The cut out of a dove recalls the German soldiers' habit of capturing and eating pigeons in Tallinn. What makes this cover brilliant, however, is the man facing away from the cover and facing us at the same time.

When the Doves Disappeared is really the story of Edgar Parts. Though the first part of the book tells the story of his wife and cousin, their stories circle Edgar's. The last part of the book lets us into Edgar's world. We see what motivates him (fear of discovery, for the most part) and what he likes and dislikes, but you can't say that you really know him. Over the course of the book, Edgar changes sides twice. The cutout on the cover splits the faceless man into three segments, echoing Edgar's transformations from NKVD officer, to German catspaw, and back to a loyal Soviet Estonian citizen. After the War, Edgar will go to desperate lengths to hide his past working for the Germans—symbolized by the segment of the cover where the man is facing away. The eye that peers so seriously out from the cover is Edgar watching for any hint of suspicious and covering his tracks.

The story of When the Doves Disappeared is there for everyone to see on the book's cover, but it will only make sense after you finish reading it. Then the meaning becomes so apparent it's a wonder you didn't spot it sooner.


Will Starling, by Ian Weir

Will Starling
Perhaps Will Starling was born to hang. He was left at a foundling hospital as an infant. Once he was old enough to strike out on his own, Will press-gangs himself into the British Army to fight Napoleon. (There was some question about whether or not the infantryman was joking or not.) Just when you think Will has landed on his feet as a surgeon's assistant in London, love and hatred pull him into a dark mystery in Ian Weir's Will Starling.

Our first clue that things are not going well for Will is his admission that he's writing from a condemned cell in Newgate Prison. He's writing, as the broadsheets would have it, his "Last Dying Confession." In this confession, Will pieces together the events of the previous March of 1816, when a rogue surgeon tried to cure death and ruined the lives of nearly everyone who knew him.

Will get involved when a man choked to death on a candied plum while trying to assault Will's sweetheart. Later, the sweetheart comes to tell Will that she saw the man and was afraid for her life. Will's questions lead him to Dionysius Atherton. Atherton is rich and connected and untouchable when it comes to the law.

As Will pieces together what happened to Atherton's victims, Weir paints a highly detailed portrait of London for his readers. London, in Will Starling, is peopled by Resurrection Men, rakes and Cyprians, actors willing to fake testimony in court, unethical scientists, bruisers and ex-soldiers. I adored the language Weir used. His vocabulary is refreshingly gargantuan (a good eighteenth century word), peppered with classical allusions and Latin malapropisms. I had a great time reading this book.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 February 2015.


Change the narrator, change the story

I have read so many books in the past month in which a male(ish) narrator tells a woman's story: The Reader, The Book Thief (this is where the -ish comes from), The House of Special Purpose, and The Witch of Napoli. Between this odd streak and attending a literary analysis class, I've been feeling a low-burning feminist anger.

Martta Wendelin
I wrote a note on the first page of The Reader: What if Hanna Schmitz had told her own story? That's not what The Reader is about, of course. This is Michael Berg's story. Hanna remains mysterious throughout the book, primarily because Michael doesn't understand women—especially Hanna.

Perhaps I'm bothered because I know full well that male authors can write fully-realized, believable female characters. Thomas Hardy springs to mind. (Yes, really.) With the exception of The Book Thief, I felt that there was something missing from the portrayal of the women in the novels I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

A thought just occurred to me. What if my problem is that I don't fully understand male characters? I never seem to get how they feel about women, how they view women. Part of the reason we are drawn to story is that it lets us into other people's worlds. When I read male narrators discuss women, I want to reach into the text and correct their misapprehensions more than I want to understand them.

Another thought I've had about this probably springs from my recent proximity to literary criticism. When an author chooses and first person narrator, if they're not careful, they end up silencing the other characters. And the silencing of female characters raises my ire.

This is why narrator choice is so important. The story belongs to whoever narrates it, even if the bulk of the plot centers on some other character's experience. This is particularly frustrating when you can't understand or identify with the narrator or the narrator is outclassed by the other characters—which is absolutely the case with Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz in The Reader. I wasn't interested in Michael the way I was (and still am) interested in Hanna. One can't help but feel that a book could have been amazing if the author had just chosen another character.

This is my 1,000th post. Thanks for reading everyone!


Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King

Dreaming Spies
In Dreaming Spies, Laurie R. King returns to Mary Russell's and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, travels around the world. This time, King tells the story of Russell and Holmes' adventure with a stolen, forged rare Japanese book; a blackmailed emperor; ninjas; and irritating English toffs.

We rejoin Russell, our narrator, in Bombay. She and Holmes have just solved a case in the Indian highlands and are taking ship for Japan, California, and, finally, back to England. As they often do, things go agley with their planes. Holmes spots a man who was suspected of, but never caught, blackmail. Russell meets a curiously fit and competent Japanese woman.

The case spins itself out slowly because the Japanese woman, Haruki Sato, is extremely reluctant to trust Russell and Holmes. When she finally agrees to tell them what's going on, we learn that the suspected blackmailer has a document that could bring down the Japanese government. Their client turns out to be Prince Regent Hirohito. (Yes, that one.*)

The first two thirds of the book involve an attempt to recover the document. It's clear, however, that things aren't over when Russell and Holmes leave Japan. The last third brings the whole story to an exciting conclusion.

The challenge of long-running series is keeping them fresh, especially with mystery series. If each entry involves solving a case, without any character growth or changing the stakes, the series will lose its spark. King's Russell and Holmes series shows no sign of losing its spark. Each entry in this series has Russell learning more about herself as she and her husband solve cases that baffle others.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 17 February 2015.


* The fact that Russell and Holmes were working for Hirohito made me twitch. Dreaming Spies has a few hints about another world war being on the horizon. I'd have been tempted to tell Hirohito to stick it, actually.


The Witch of Napoli, by Michael Schmicker

The Witch of Napoli
Based on the life of Eusapia Palladino, Michael Schmicker's The Witch of Napoli tells the story of a woman who baffled science at the end of the nineteenth century.

Tomaso Labella had just landed a job as a photographer for the Neapolitan newspaper, Mattino, when he is assigned to photograph a woman who is gaining a reputation as a medium. As soon as he sees Alessandra Poverelli, he fall instantly in love. Alessandra is rough, a peasant, but fierce and unwilling to let anyone get the best of her. Though Tomaso is our narrator for the entirety of The Witch of Napoli, this is really Alessandra's story. She's rough and vulgar. She makes mistakes left and right. And yet, few things can keep this woman down for long.

A friend arranges for Alessandra to be tested by a noted scientist and skeptic from Turin, Dr. Camillo Lombardi. The test takes place in Alessandra's apartment in the slums of Naples. Lombardi is not happy about this. He's in a particularly bad mood as the test begins, but Alessandra manages to win him over when the séance is visited by the spirit of Lombardi's mother. A table levitation and some raps later, Lombardi is a convert. He offers Alessandra 4,000 lire if she agrees to a series of scientific experiments over the course of six months—if she can keep her temper, not engage in any scandals, and perform her inexplicable feats. Tomaso is hired on as companion and photographer for the trials.

The Witch of Napoli is narrated in whirlwind fashion. The short chapters zip along as Alessandra and Tomaso travel to northern Italy, France, Switzerland, German, Poland, and England. Schmicker never reveals how Alessandra does her tricks. Her séances are presented as if she is a genuine medium. Over time, the stress of being a "trained monkey"—as Alessandra claims when she reaches a breaking point in Germany—diminishes her powers. It doesn't help that the Vatican has sent in one of their best investigators to dig up dirt about her early life. And yet, in spite of all of this, Alessandra is such a winning character that you can'r help but root for her, hoping that she'll find a way to defeat her enemies at last.

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

Jackaby, by William Ritter

Jackaby, by William Ritter, has been popping up on recommendations lists everywhere for me. Now I know why. Ritter combines mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, whimsy, eccentric characters, wit and sass, and solid plotting all into one book. If Ritter had sat down and interviewed me, I don't know that he could have written a book that entertained me more than this one. It's a pity I have to wait until this September to spend more time with R.F. Jackaby and Abigail Rook.

Abigail Rook serves as our narrator and stand-in. She's fresh off the boat in New Fiddleham, having cut ties with her family to go adventuring in Eastern Europe. Things have not gone according to plan, unfortunately for her. She's hungry, homeless, and jobless. No one will give her a job. By chance, she spots a notice in the local post office directing her to R.F. Jackaby, who is looking for an assistant to help him with his work as a detective. When Abigal tracks the man down, she discovers that he's the man she met her first night in New Fiddleham. He told her she had a Ukrainian fairy living in her hat and a kobold eating the rust off her coat.

For the first third of the book, Ritter plays coy. It's impossible to say whether or not Jackaby is crazy or is actually telling the truth about the creatures and auras he sees. Abigail is willing to play along—at least until she meets the ghost that lives in Jackaby's house. Jackaby lives in a strange, lonely world. As far as he knows, he's the only Seer in the world. It's an uphill battle to try and convince people that ghosts, banshees, leprechauns, and other ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties exist. Abigail is a swift convert to Jackaby's reality.

Jackaby and Abigail's first case involves the grisly murders at a local apartment complex. A journalist has been found with his chest ripped open and his blood missing. Local Detective Marlowe doggedly follows the police rule book while Jackaby and Abigail take a more circuitous route to figuring out what done it.

Jackaby has a lively humor to it. I was chuckling through most of it. (I kept running across passages that were so delightfully funny that I wanted to quote them all. I resisted because quoting that much would violate fair use.) Gender is a rich source of humor. As it's the late 1800s, women are often brushed aside with comments about their unsuitable temperament or general physical and emotional weakness. Jackaby himself makes some comments like this that get him punched in the nose by a furious Irish immigrant. Ritter's female characters turn the historical sexism on its head.

The only criticism I have of Jackaby is that it was too short.


The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne

The House of Special Purpose
We need to create a term for characters in novels who find themselves at the crossroads of history. That way, I could use it to describe Georgy Daniilovich Jachmenev. Georgy began his life as a poor muzhik's son in a town that is frequently described by the other characters as a shithole. When the tsar's cousin visits the town on his way to somewhere else, Georgy unexpectedly becomes a hero. The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne, tells Georgy's story from that strange, violent day in 1915 to 1981.

Boyne introduces us to Georgy in 1981. Georgy's wife, Zoya, is dying of cancer and he is not coping well. He begins to think back on their life together. In chapters interwoven with his early life in St. Petersburg during World War I and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Georgy takes us back to important moments in his married life.

After Georgy saves the tsar's cousin, he is offered a position in the Leib Guard, as a special bodyguard for the Tsarevich Alexei. Even more dazzling for the muzhik's son, Tsar Nicholas II takes a liking to him, even treating him as a confidant from time to time. On his first day in St. Petersburg, Georgy meets the girl who he instantly falls in love with. It's only later that he learns that she's the Grand Duchess Anastasia. These parts of the book move forward in time, until they meet his future selves recollections in 1918.

Young Georgy is a naïf, even as an old man. Because he lived in the same bubble as the Russian royals, he is broadsided by the revolution—almost more surprised than the Romanovs were. He never really loses that naiveté, He hate to confront hard truths. Georgy can be a man of action when he needs to be, but for the most part, he's just coping with what the world throws at him.

Even though our narrator keeps his secrets until near the end of The House of Special Purpose, it's not hard to work out just what's going on with Georgy and Zoya (though I won't spoil the secret here for future readers). I found this book to be a skillful blend of marriage memoir and historical fiction. The House of Special Purpose is as much a sensitive portrait of two people who love each other and their ups and downs as a couple as it is a chance to peer into history with Georgy as our eyes.


Arguing with critics...in my head

I've been reading Terry Eagleton's How to Read Literature along with the students of the class I am co-teaching for the English department. (Because I don't have time to read the whole thing in one go.) I'm kind of glad that students can't see me reading Eagleton. I'd be setting a bad example. At one point in the second chapter of How to Read Literature, on character, I called the author a berk in my margin notes. (The man does not understand Othello at all.) I called him all sorts of names out loud—not in class.

The point of How to Read Literature, as I understand it, is to give readers a tool chest for literary analysis. There is a reason there are so many critical lenses for readers and scholars to use. Different texts make more sense if you use a psychoanalytic approach or a feminist approach or a deconstructionist approach. So far, so good. What I had an issue with as I read Eagleton mull over character was the fact that he favors some tools over others. He prefers his Marxist hammer (get it?) over his psychoanalytic screwdriver (I had to go for a naughty pun because of reasons). Eagleton writes about Othello, Sue Bridehead, Jane Eyre, Clarissa, and others. But I only agreed with a few of his arguments. And my marginalia shows it.

For me, reading critics is not a relaxing experience. I end up yelling things at the page or writing insults in the margins. I'd try to publish papers about my opinions, but you can't get through peer-review if you call your opponents morons in so many words. (Although you can still get published when you swear at the journal publishers, apparently.)

I do hope that by arguing against Eagleton (in family-friendly language) during class every now and then, I can encourage the students to question the experts as they do their research. They need to learn that, if they can build a strong argument, they can contradict critics no matter how many letters they have after their names.

This feels like a disjointed post, but it was cathartic for me. I feel better now.


Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

Every now and then, I read a book that reminds me just how young I am. Last year, I read Terry Tempest William's memoir, When Women Were Birds. I didn't get it. It wasn't that I didn't have the right life experiences to understand the book; I just didn't have enough life experiences, period. Last night and this morning, as I finished Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, I had the same feeling. I find myself baffled by Louis Zamperini, even after spending 400+ pages with him.

Because five minutes on Wikipedia will give you a solid outline of Zamperini's life, I'm going to skip my usual synopsis and get straight into my unorganized thoughts about the book.

I have always been deeply infuriated and frustrated at the treatment of the Second World War's war criminals. Though some were captured and a few put to death, too many slipped through the cracks and escaped to live the long lives that were denied to their victims. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, Zamperini's chief torturer, was one of the men who escaped the efforts to find him after Japan surrendered. He died in 2003 and never saw the inside of a jail cell. Prisoners of war in Japanese camps suffered unspeakable tortures and deprivations. But a few years after the war, American authorities in Japan stopped hunting and prosecuting war criminals in the name of public relations—just like they did in Germany. Worse, I think, is that the Japanese government hasn't taken official responsibility for their past crimes (especially the Rape of Nanking).

This angers me, but doesn't baffle me. What baffles me is Louis Zamperini's ability to forgive the men who beat, starved, and tormented him for over two years. What happened to him in Ofuna, Omori, and Naoetsu was unforgivable. Zamperini justifiably plotted revenge against Watanabe for years before his wife, Cynthia, talked him into hearing Billy Graham give sermons. Unbroken is a little vague about this part, but Louis found God and forgiveness for his captors. (This is also a problem I had with When Women Were Birds. Mystic/religious experiences are ineffable. You can't understand them unless you've actually had one yourself.) As I read the last third of the book, after Zamperini was liberated, I kept wanting to shout at the book, "Where is the justice?"

This is an interesting time to read Unbroken. It's only been a few weeks since the CIA's report on torture at Guantánamo came out. Many of the atrocities in that report are mentioned in Unbroken. Waterboarding, stress positions, sensory deprivation, and other crimes were used on Allied POWs in the camps. I supposed this is the hypocrisy of the Geneva Conventions; they only apply to soldiers in uniform. If you're designated as an enemy combatant out of uniform, anything could happen to you. No one should have to suffer like Zamperini.

Hillenbrand does her best to help her readers understand the mindset of the Japanese army before and during World War II. She writes about shame in Japanese culture. She writes about the importance of rank. She writes about how positions of power encourage violence and sadism. None of this is written as an apology or excuse. While she falters in explaining Zamperini's conversion to born again Christianity, she succeeds in bringing the world of POW camps back to life. This is a difficult book to read because Hillebrand doesn't shy away from anything.

I haven't seen the film version of Unbroken. (I probably won't. I have a bad track record when it comes to going out to see movies.) I have a bad feeling that a lot of Hillenbrand's research and nuance is going to be stripped away. (This is what happens every time a book is adapted.) Unbroken and Zamperini's story are complex. By taking away the nuance and context, I fear that the movie won't deliver the same lessons that the book does.


When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen

When the Doves Disappeared
I had to take a break as I was reading Sofi Oksanen's When the Doves Disappeared to read up on Estonia during World War II. It's the first book I've read that's set in the Baltic, let alone in the Baltic during the war. I didn't know, for example, that Estonia had been an independent country before the Soviet Union took advantage of the non-aggression pact to invade in 1940. When the Germans invaded in 1941, many Estonians—including several of the characters in When the Doves Disappeared—welcomed them as a means to regain their independence. Oksanen's novel revolves around Edgar Parts as he morphs from NKVD agent to German agent and back.

When the Doves Disappeared doesn't begin with Edgar. It begins with his cousin, Roland, and Edgar's wife, Juudit. Roland and Edgar returned from Finland to fight the Russians just before the German invasion. By the time we meet them, they're both looking for a way out. Both want out of the fighting, but for different reasons. Roland decides to side with the Estonians. Edgar jumps aboard the German bandwagon, seeing it as his way to the top. Meanwhile. Juudit is stuck in Tallinn, wondering what she should do. She's alone in the city. Her husband hasn't come back, nor has he sent word that he's even alive and in the country.

As Edgar, Roland, and Juudit find their own paths forward, the narrative jumps ahead to the earlier 1960s. Edgar Parts, now a local agent in Tallinn for the KGB, has been tasked with writing a book about "Hitlerism" in Estonia and war crimes. If the book passes the censors, Edgar could become a famous author. All he has to do is make sure no one finds out that he was a collaborator during the war. As Edgar does his research, he takes care to track down anyone who knew him then who might still be alive and cover up any traces of his own lies.

When the Doves Disappeared moves back and forth from the 1940s to the 1960s. Slowly, we learn more about how Edgar survived the war. We learn that Roland spent part of the war smuggling Estonians, including Jews, out of the country, and working with the anti-German resistance. We also learn that Juudit, under orders from Roland, ended up seducing the wrong Wehrmacht officer and fell deeply in love with someone who was supposed to be the enemy. This half of the book was fascinating. It opened up a whole new theater of the war for me.

The first half of When the Doves Disappeared is a thrilling war story. Every character seems to be on the edge of disaster. The second half is much darker as the focus shifts from Roland and Juudit to Edgar. The second half is very much a Cold War story, as Edgar tries to outthink his Soviet masters at every turn.

This shift in focus is the big flaw in When the Doves Disappeared. Though characters stay the same, the two halves feel disconnected from each other by the changes in tone and plot. The disconnect makes the book feel incomplete, as if two really good ideas had been jammed together to make up one whole novel. If Oksanen had developed one half or the other, this book could have been really interesting.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.


Authors don't get mulligans

At the beginning of the year, The New York Times reported in a brief article that Annie Proulx regretted "Brokeback Mountain." She didn't regret what she wrote. "It's a strong story," Proulx said in the Times piece. What she regrets is the attention the story got after it was turned into an Oscar-winning movie. Proulx said, "I wish I’d never written the story." Many fans of the movie hate that the story (and I mean the plot here) has a sad ending. Proulx goes on to say:
They can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild.
I happened to read the Times report just today. (I've been cleaning out the articles and such I've been saving via Pocket since the holidays.) As I read it, I recalled articles about J.K. Rowling's regrets about her series ("J.K. Rowling Regrets Pairing Hermione With Ron Instead of Harry Potter" and "J.K. Rowling Only Regrets Killing Off One 'Harry Potter' Character).

I'm not going to defend fans who pester authors with alternate versions of their stories. They're obnoxious and they need to recognize that, as much as they love the characters and the stories, these things don't belong to them.

What I want to write about is the difference in the stances that Proulx and Rowling take. Proulx stands firm on her story. For her, "Brokeback Mountain" couldn't have ended any other way without losing its impact and meaning. Rowling, however, in her frequent interviews about Harry Potter and his world, seems to be re-writing her stories by sharing how she would have written things given another chance.

Unfortunately, once a story is out in the world, it can't be recalled for rewrites—especially in the Internet Age. There are no mulligans. What Rowling's interviews do is put fences around her stories and cut off avenues of interpretation. Unless you make a point of ignoring the author, that is.

The way I see it, once a story is published, it becomes independent of authors and readers. We can all say what we think it means, but no one's interpretation is absolutely definitive. Some interpretations are more convincing than others, sure, but all interpretations that can be supported by the story are valid. What none of us can do is rewrite the story to support our pet theories and wishful thinking.


Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Judd Trichter

Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Eliot Lazar loves an android. In his world, this is one of the most repellent sexual perversions there is. Androids were created for cheap labor. They're objects, not people. So, Eliot hides his love for Iris Matsuo (and his drug habit) from his family and employers. Someday, he promises Iris, they will sail to Avernus, where they can live openly in a Pacific utopia. And then, Iris is kidnapped, murdered, and chopped up for parts. Judd Trichter's Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is the story of Eliot's quest to rebuild his lost love.

Any dystopian world with human-like androids is going to draw comparisons to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I haven't read the book and saw the movie so long ago that I can't speak to how much Trichter drew from (or didn't draw from) Dick. There is no Voight-Kampff test or automatic expiration for androids in Trichter's world—I can say that much at least.

Eliot's father got the idea for android labor back in college. When he put his ideas into practice after graduation, he changed the world. Now, some androids have become terrorists—or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective. Eliot's father and younger sister were killed by android "activists." These days, there are pro- and anti-android factions. There's mass unemployment. Emergency services are overstretched. And when Iris disappears, Eliot has no one to rely on except himself to get her back.

There aren't many clues for Eliot to follow until he uncovers a sadistic trapper who lures and kills female androids. After Eliot kills the trapper (messily), he finds a laptop that lists the buyers of Iris' parts. Eliot has to collect them from model agencies and junkyards and casinos all over the Los Angeles area. His stamina and determination are incredible. But he's in a race against time as Iris's parts are passed on to new owners and the police close in on him.

Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a terrific read that, unfortunately, has a few rookie author flaws. There are a lot of infodumps. Trichter can build his world unobtrusively, but there are a few sections that read like textbooks when he decides to share more history than we need. Once I got past those, I had a great time with this book. Trichter wrote more than a thrilling science fiction tale. As Eliot pieces Iris back together, he has to confront the nature of androids. Are they the sum of their parts? If a part is being used by another functioning android, is it right to take the part back? Are human lives worth more than android lives if androids have personalities? Like all great science fiction, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction will leave you pondering uncomfortable questions for a while.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 3 February 2015.


A Bad Character, by Deepti Kapoor

A Bad Character
Our unnamed narrator lives in Delhi with her Aunty. Her mother died years ago and her father abandoned them for Singapore. With no one else to take care for her, Aunty has been looking for potential grooms for our narrator. Our narrator doesn't want any part of a traditional life, but she doesn't know what she wants instead. Deepti Kapoor lets her tell her story in A Bad Character as she finds someone interesting, lets him mold her, then breaks free of him.

A Bad Character is told from ten years later, as the narrator reflects back on her life. Even as a young girl, our narrator never fit in. Her mother was a loner, too. Our narrator tells us about visiting Varanasi and living in Agra before going to live with Aunty in flashbacks before telling us about how she met her unnamed lover in a cafe.

Our narrator also tells us that their affair doesn't last long, because he was killed in a traffic accident just a few months after they met. He's the opposite of what our narrator is supposed to want: unemployed, dark skinned, forward. He shows her the city and its people and draws her out of her shell. They have an amazing sexual connection. But it's not meant to be. Our narrator's lover is unstable and falls deeper into drug addiction.

The title of the book comes from a line that often appears in death notices in Indian newspapers. Some of the dead are dismissed as bad characters, as if they deserved their deaths. "Bad characters" like our narrator and her lover just don't fit in to what their families and societies want. After her affair, our narrator drifts until she finds a way make a living.

This review is tricky to write. Only a few of the characters have names. The pacing is languid. Our narrator tells her story our of order. At times, I was reminded of Tristram Shandy as the narrator started her story over and over again. Unlike Tristram Shandy, this is not a comic bildungsroman. Our narrator doesn't have a clear goal. She drifts through life. She's a hard woman to understand.

A Bad Character will reward multiple readings. It's short chapters are packed with meaning, told through subtle clues like changes in pronouns and drug-induced hallucinations and dreams. Even though our narrator is difficult to comprehend, I was intrigued by A Bad Character and its narrator. Deepti Kapoor took me to a different world.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 20 January 2015.

Reader Resolutions, Year II

Leslie Herman
Last year, I made a set of resolutions for my reading life—since I know I would never be able to keep any resolutions about exercise, being more social, etc. I planned to whittle down my to-read list, read a classic novel (pre-1950) every month, and be better about keeping up my reading journal.

I mostly got there. I was doing pretty good until November, when I tried to read The Turn of the Screw. Other than that, I did manage to read a pre-1950 novel or novella every month in 2014. I did resurrect my reading journal (which has gotten more useful lately). But for every book I took off the to-read list, another one (or two) went back on. ::sigh::

I've been thinking about these resolutions for a while. I think I can stick to them for a year.
  1. Keep reading a classic a month. There are so many books I missed while I was an undergraduate. Even with all the new books coming out every week, it's important to look back at books with true staying power.
  2. Re-read a book I already own once a month. While I was listening to Good Omens, I developed a strong urge to re-read the book. It's been a while. Also, over the break, I visited a bookstore and found a few more titles to add to my library. When I returned home, I had to shuffle things around to make room for them. My shelves are packed with great reads; it would be a pity to let them languish. So, more re-reading in 2015.