The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder

If Lib Wright had had the full details of her posting as a private nurse to Anna O’Donnell, she would not have taken the assignment. She would have packed up immediately and gone back to her hospital in England. But since she was already in Ireland (and since travel in 1859 was not easy), Lib decided to stay and be part of the two nurse team assigned to watch the girl, day and night, for two weeks. Lib and Sister Michael have been hired by a committee to determine if Anna has truly stopped eating. The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue, is based on the nineteenth century phenomena of “fasting girls” and the Catholic tradition of Anorexia mirabilis (the miracle of no longer needing to eat).

The committee paying Lib and Sister Michael have designed a test to find out if Anna’s anorexia is actually miraculous, or if the O’Donnell family were cheating somehow. Lib, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran nurse of the Crimean War, is deeply skeptical. The local doctor believes that Anna is evolving into a new variety of human who can live without food. Anna’s village priest and Sister Michael are willing to take the “miracle” at face value. People are traveling from far and wide to get a blessing from Anna or say a prayer with her. Meanwhile, Lib is making notes about the girl’s deteriorating condition; Anna is clearly suffering the effects of severe malnutrition.

Anna is very good at keeping secrets. When she speaks, Anna repeats quotes from the Bible or The Imitation of Christ or various prayers. Her answers to Lib’s questions frustrate the nurse no end. The narrative is a slow unraveling of the girl’s secrets and the story grows increasingly tense as Anna gets worse and worse. It’s clear she is dying and it seems like only Lib wants to save her. Everyone else wants to see Anna acclaimed as a miracle or exposed as a fraud.

The Wonder had me from the first chapter. Lib is a terrific character caught in a wrenching dilemma. It was heartbreaking to watch her metaphorically beat her head against the brick wall of Catholic belief and pseudoscience. Even though Anna’s story is outlandish, it’s based on actual history. It’s clear Donoghue did sterling research on Anorexia mirabilis, fasting girls, and post-famine Ireland—though the story never gets bogged down in exposition. I can’t say too much, but I will admit that the ending of this book almost had me in tears.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 September 2016. 

The Darkness Knows, by Cheryl Honigford

The Darkness Knows

After reading The Little Red ChairsI needed something lighter. Cheryl Honigford’s The Darkness Knows, thankfully, delivered. This series debut is set just before World War II in the Chicago studios of WCHI. Vivian Witchell is on the lower rungs of the radio star ladder, but she’s just landed her first regular role in the series The Darkness Knows playing a detective’s sidekick. Viv has been on the show for about a week before she lands smack in the middle of a real murder mystery. Viv has all the pluck and gumption of a vintage screwball heroine, making this book a cracking read.

After Viv discovers Marjorie Fox—the lead in a long-running and popular soap opera series—dead in the staff lounge and is named in a threatening letter, Charlie Haverman is assigned to protect her. Charlie is a private detective who consults for The Darkness Knows (though he later reveals that he cribs heavily from Black Mask because real detective work isn’t exciting enough for radio). Viv is terrified to be the possible target of a deranged fan, but not too terrified to insist on finding out who killed Marjorie. She metaphorically puts the screws on Charlie to help.

The mystery plot is twisty enough to satisfy, but I loved the setting of The Darkness Knows. The WCHI studios are packed with great characters. The rapacious Frances who wants to steal Viv’s role and her doofus of a co-star who has delusions of being a playbook are particularly good. I had a good time reading this book; it was a great antidote to the heaviness of The Little Red Chairs.

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien

The Little Red Chairs

There are people who deserve second changes and others who very much do not. Edna O’Brien shows us both in The Little Red Chairs. As the novel opens, a man has come to the village of Cloonoila, Ireland, to open a New Age clinic. No one knows much about his past, but his charm opens doors everywhere—at least until the truth about his past gets out. When the metaphorical doors close, Fidelma gets caught out in the cold because she had the misfortune to fall in with with the charming man.

The title of the book comes from the Sarajvo Red Line, a commemoration for all the people who were killed during the siege between 1992 and 1996. The so-charming man who ruins Fidelma’s life is based on Radovan Karadžić, a real-life war criminal who was recently sentenced to forty years in prison by the International Criminal Court. Like Karadžić, Dr. Dragan reinvented himself as a healer. He reminds me strongly of Rasputin, though I know Dragan is taken from life. Dragan is awfully good at spinning bullshit and having people believe him. He’s just so very charming, at least until his façade cracks and we see the megalomaniac underneath.

We never get inside Dragan’s head; we only see him through the eyes of others. In the first half of The Little Red Chairs, our “narrator” is a chorus of voices—sometimes individuals and sometimes the collective conscious of Cloonoila—who eagerly gossip about the mysterious doctor as well as everyone’s business. We don’t learn much about Fidelma until Dragan has settled in somewhat. Fidelma is the much younger wife of Jack and very much wants a child. Nothing has worked. When she falls under the doctor’s spell, she convinces him to sleep with her so that she can get pregnant. Ten weeks into the pregnancy, Dragan’s cover is blown and something truly terrible happens to Fidelma and her child.

In the second half of the book, the story’s focus settles on Fidelma and her new life in London. She has left Cloonoila because she can’t bear to be around people who know of her attachment to Dragan and because of the terrible thing. She is tainted by association, she believes. So she resettles among London’s immigrant population, scrounging a scant living and hiding more than anything else. No one ever says it out loud in the second half, but Fidelma is in desperate need of a second chance.

Curiously, where many novels emphasize the connections between characters—however tangential—this book reinforces the isolation of its characters from each other. Everyone is living out their own tales. Even when we hear from the Cloonoila collective, no one appears to be strongly attached to anyone else. (At least, not the living. More than one character has a deep connection to a ghost.) The constant background stories just reinforce the individuality of each character. When Fidelma moves to London and attends group sessions with immigrants and political refugees, every story is unique and none of the characters is able to sympathize with anyone else, they are so wounded.

The Little Red Chairs was nothing like I expected. I had only read a few reviews and the inside jacket copy. In retrospect, I wish I had gone into this book blind. I focused too much on Dragan in the beginning before realizing that this was a story about the lives he touched after he landed in Ireland and how war crimes taint even the innocent by association. The more I read, I saw that the book was more about characters who get stuck by the worst thing that ever happened to them. This is not a book about moving on.

The Bookish Gamble; Or, Keep Publishing Weird

Profits from 20 percent, maybe even 10 percent, of books support the 80 percent or 90 percent that don’t sell. So some publishers think relying solely on instinct is just not enough. (Lynn Neary)

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, because I didn’t know how to write it without frothing over into incoherent bookish ranting. I read Neary’s piece from NPR weeks ago (linked above). In it, she writes about publishers using data collected from ebook readers to decide which books are more likely to be successful in the future. Neary does her best to be even-handed about using data this way, quoting the founder of a reading analytics company about editors using the data to take a chance on a book that their bosses might not like.

Alicia Martin

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to major publishing over the last couple of years knows that this isn’t happening. How many young adult dystopias did we see coming from publishing houses after the success of The Hunger Games? How many The Da Vinci Code look-a-likes? Publishing is already savvy to trying to recreate success.

No wonder independent and smaller publishing houses have been getting more attention lately. As Nathan Scott McNamara argues in The Atlanticindependent presses have become the place to find more experimental, weirder, and diverse books. The indies are more willing to take a chance on books than the big publishers.

I worry that the use of reading data will homogenize publishing even more. Already, I purchase most of my books from Amazon and rely on interlibrary loan at my library to get my reading material, simply because my local bookstores don’t stock what I want. I read book reviews from a variety of professional and amateur sources because so few of the most-hyped books interest me. (On a related note, Tim Parks wrote a piece in The New York Times about the effect of literary festivals championing a select few titles makes it harder for literature-in-translation to get more than a toehold in the English-reading world.)

Relying on literary agents and editors isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than letting data drive what gets published. In the end, I think what I’m really worried about is something Haruki Murakami warned us about:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.


The Ferryman Institute, by Colin Gigl

The Ferryman Institute

Charlie Dawson is a legend at the office but, after two hundred fifty years of escorting souls to the afterlife, he’s starting to get burned out. He’s tired of seeing death after death and not being able to do anything to actually save their lives. In Colin Gigl’s amazing novel, The Ferryman Institute, we see what happens when Charlie is finally given a choice: to save a life or remain a Ferryman.

The Ferryman Institute, founded by Charon the original Ferryman, exists to keep earth from being overrun with angry spirits and poltergeists. At least, this is what Charlie has always been told. So, every “day” (time is more than a bit relative in Charlie’s world) he takes calls to escort souls to whatever afterlife they’ve believed in. He’s the best, so he gets to see more than his fair share of awful deaths and tragedy. He escapes from the office and requests retirement every chance he gets, but his little escapes are not enough when his bosses just won’t let him go.

The only thing that’s different about his latest mission, to escort the soul of Alice Spiegel, is that it comes straight from the president of the Institute. It offers him the choice of saving the girl (who is about the commit suicide) or stay a Ferryman. In a split second, he makes the choice to stop Alice. With that choice, everything about his daily grind goes haywire. Before the day is out, he and Alice are on the run from the Institute’s notorious Inspector Javrouche, almost killed in car chases, and are ambushed more than once.

For a book that has so much action, The Ferryman Institute is very contemplative about the meaning of life and death. Given Charlie’s profession, it’s no wonder that he thinks about life a lot. Some of the souls he meets are ready to move on. Others are filled with regret about unsaid goodbyes and unfinished business. Some, like Alice, are tragic because they need someone to see how far they’ve fallen and only need a helping hand. With Alice, Charlie at last has a chance to talk with a person who needs to learn why they should go on with their life—and learn that he, too, needed to find a reason to carry on.

I chose this book from NetGalley because I was intrigued to learn what Gigl might do with the idea of psychopomps. I’m fascinated by stories that take mythology and twist it a bit, especially when the author has wit. This book was excellent; it combines an intelligent premise with action and humor, all bent around a brilliantly unpredictable plot.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who feel burned out by their jobs.

This week on the bookish internet

  • People think of librarians as quiet, reclusive people, but we weren’t always. Lauren Young shares the shenanigans as the Library of Alexandria and the Library of Pergamum fought for books and scholarship. (Atlas Obscura)
  • After a lot of suggestions about persistence, one of the most frequently offered pieces of advice writers receive is not to read their reviews. Curtis Sittenfeld reads reviews of her books anyway. Jennifer Senior asked Sittenfeld about her experience. (The New York Times)
  • Tiffani Willis explains how Charlie Brown got her to read the Russian greats. (Book Riot)
  • If the Rabid and Sad Puppies want to win book awards, they should champion better books. Damien Walter read some of the books on the Puppies’ slate and found them absolutely dreadful. (The Guardian)
  • Cameron Hunt McNabb reflects on the history and many meanings of the now-indispensable ellipsis. (Slate)
  • Sarah Gailey calls for science fiction and fantasy authors to stop using sexual violence as a genre trope. (Tor)

The Second Winter, by Craig Larsen

The Second Winter

Reading The Second Winter, by Craig Larsen, can be bewildering. The narrative shifts from character to character and through time. The connections between the characters are only slowly revealed and, even then, remain somewhat tenuous. I appreciated the perspective the book presented of lives sliding around each other, occasionally colliding. What made the book difficult was the constant threat of violence to Polina and the other female characters. Rape and sexual exploitation loom too large in this book.

The Second Winter introduces us to two women, separated by more than twenty years. Angela Schmidt is traveling into East Berlin to perform a concert. She plans to sneak a visit to her aunt, who got caught on the other side of the Wall, and she is smuggling something dangerous enough that the mere sight of the border guards is terrifying. Then we jump back to 1939 and over to Poland. Polina is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a gentile father. The Germans have invaded and rounded up her family. Polina only avoided their fate because she happened to be away from home at just the right time, though she doesn’t remain free for long.

We won’t know what happened to Polina or how Angela is involved until a few more characters, all men, are introduced. We meet the photographer Hermann (Angela’s father); Fredrik Gregerson, a violent amphetamine addict who smuggles Jews from Denmark to Sweden for money; Fredrik’s son, Oscar; and few others. As the narrative lurches along, connections through family relationships and stolen jewelry start to emerge. I felt, at the beginning of The Second Winter, that the book had started from too wide a view. By the end, with its climactic scenes at the Gregerson farm in Jutland, everything started to make sense.

The sexual violence, which permeates most of the beginning of the book, is hard to read. Polina suffers repeatedly at the hands of men who order her to do this or that, always for their pleasure. Worse, the scenes between Polina and the male characters are all presented from the male perspective. We don’t know what she’s thinking most of the time and, because the men see nothing wrong with what they’re doing, these scenes are terrifying. When I asked for a copy of this book, I was not prepared for this. I was expecting a tangled history revolving around the connections between the characters.

The Second Winter is skillfully written but, because of the particular type of violence, I can’t recommend the book to many readers. Any recommendation would come with a strong trigger warning.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, by Yu Hua

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Set between the late 1940s and early 1970s, Yu Hua’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (translated by Andrew Jones) tells the story of an ordinary man living in hard times. Xu Sanguan works at a silk factory which usually provides enough income to support his wife and three sons. When times get desperate and money runs short, Xu Sanguan sells blood at the local hospital to bail out the family. Unlike most of the Chinese literature I’ve read, this book does not employ any literary pyrotechnics. It is a straightforward story of a man growing up from a curious teen to a selfish young patriarch to a man devoted to his family.

When he is a young man, Xu Sanguan asks questions of everyone. His questions bring him the lifelong friendship of two farmers who teach him about blood-selling. They teach him to drink massive amounts of water before (to thin the blood, they say, so that there’s more of it) and to eat fried pork livers after (to help build up the blood again). Blood-selling is not entirely respectable, as most people believe that doing so shortens one’s life and ruins one’s health. Xu Sanguan doesn’t make a habit of selling his blood; he just sells a few pints when he needs cash to support a wife and start a family.

Time skips in Chronicle of a Blood Merchant to various crises in Xu Sanguan’s life and he has to sell blood. He is not, at first a likeable man. He’s frequently cruel to his wife. When he learns that his son is not biologically related to him, he treats the boy differently from his other sons. He feuds with his wife’s former beau and commits adultery. I started to see his wife as a martyr. (Though I did laugh at the way she would cry on the family’s front porch and shout about her woes so that all the neighbors would know exactly how her husband had wronged her this time. She kind of reminded me of Mrs. Bennett.)

As I read the first half of this novel, I thought I was in for another tale of misery. But in the second half, Xu Sanguan learns to be kind to his wife and children. He stops being quite so selfish. When he sells blood in almost every hospital between his hometown and Shanghai to try and save his illegitimate son’s life, he becomes very like a hero in his sacrifice. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is the first work of Chinese literature I’ve read so far that shows such kindness and devotion to family. By the end, I rather enjoyed this book.

The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar

The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.

Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.

Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.

To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.

The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

The Family Plot

The Withrow house—over 100 years old, abandoned for decades—is supposed to save Music City Salvage. It’s got marble fireplaces, extensive chestnut walls and flooring, and stained glass windows. It’s a goldmine for vintage and reclaimed construction. The owner of Music City Salvage buys full rights to the property for $40,000, the last money in the company kitty, and sends his daughter and a small crew to start pulling the place apart. The problem is that the deal is too good to be true: the house is very, very haunted. The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest, plays out over less than a week as the crew starts to fall victim to the house.

Dahlia Dutton knows this house is her family company’s last chance. If they can’t get enough good stuff out of the house and sell it, they’re going under. Dahlia, unlike her father and the rest of the crew, loves old houses. She wishes she could save them. So while her cousin, nephew, and the new guy go straight to work, Dahlia tries to figure out why the owner was so eager to get rid of the property, why the house was abandoned in the 1960s, and what’s going on with the newly discovered cemetery. Then, the house starts to talk to Dahlia and something in the bathroom keeps attacking the crew when they try to take showers.

The atmosphere of a crumbling, haunted house out on the end of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee just as the weather turns cold is so well described by Priest that the book was completely cinematic. I enjoyed Dahlia, but Withrow House and its ghost totally steal the show. The Family Plot takes a little too long to get to the action, but I understand that there had to be a delay while Dahlia learns about the strange history of the Withrow family. Once the thing that’s haunting the house gets going, this book is a non-stop ride right to the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 20 September 2016.