The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

30901607
The Gargoyle Hunters

1974 is a hard year for Griffin Watts. His parents have split up and they argue over money when they do see each other. He’s growing up with little guidance in a chaotic household. Plus, there’s a girl he likes, but Griffin has no idea how to be with girls. In The Gargoyle Hunters, a coming-of-age novel by John Freeman Gill, Griffin gets a hard lesson in hanging on to the past as he works with his father to save New York City’s architectural heritage from neglect and urban renewal.

Griffin is 13 in the summer of 1974. He’s young enough that he still does what his parents tell him (mostly), but is starting to get old enough to wonder if what his parents tell him to do is really the right thing. Near the beginning of The Gargoyle Hunters, Griffin is pressed into service by his father to “salvage” terra cotta sculptures and other decorations from New York’s remaining Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings. To get closer to his father, Griffin soaks up his father’s stories about New York history and architecture.

At first, working with his father is a thrill. They bond over the history of the city and the dangerous lengths they have to go to save architectural ornaments. But their expeditions always take place at night and many have some element of breaking and entering about them. Before too long, Griffin begins to see that his father’s salvage business is an obsession. Meanwhile, Griffin has to contend with his regular life as a thirteen year old with girls, teenaged humiliation, a distant mother, poorly thought out pranks, and just trying to figure out who he is as a person while the city of New York goes through its worst financial crisis.

I was initially drawn to The Gargoyle Hunters because of the architectural salvage. I love older buildings’ elegance and detail. When I visit places like Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, I like to wander around and gawk at the details on hundred year old buildings. Newer, plainer architecture doesn’t appeal to me. Architectural nostalgia, I found, is the backbone for this book. We can’t go back to the past, none of us. What we can do is remember what came before, preserve the best parts, but keep in mind that the future is ahead of us like a lot ready for a new building. After all, all of the great cities are buried on layers of history that never really go away.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 March 2017.

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

30095470
The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

This fortnight on the bookish internet

  • Peter Derk has many theories about why grammar nazis drive us nuts. (LitReactor)
  • Zoe Dickinson shares her joy at meeting other bookish folk in her bookstore. (Book Riot)
  • Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Moser ponder two classic books that have been misunderstood. (New York Times)
  • Bookstores in major cities are hosting the Resistance. (New York Times)
  • George Sandeman reports on a major book heist in London. (The Guardian)
  • Would you pay £100 to visit this St. Petersburg Library for four hours? (The Guardian)
  • Trisha Brown makes a case against “women’s fiction” as a genre label. (Book Riot)

The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

30334183
The Wages of Sin

It seems like everything is against Sarah Gilchrist in The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh. She’s enrolled in one of the first classes of women in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, so she faces harassment by the male students and staff. Because of an incident in her past, she is shunned by several of the female students. Her aunt and uncle—the only members of her family currently speaking to her—are pious, traditional people who want to marry Sarah off as quickly as possible. As if this wasn’t enough to cope with, a patient Sarah sees at the clinic where she volunteers turns up dead in the University’s anatomy lab the next day. Sarah, being the determined young woman she is, dives right into the mystery.

I would have been hooked by The Wages of Sin even if it hadn’t been a mystery. I am a sucker for medical history and this book plunged me right into the thick of it by dropping me into Sarah Gilchrist’s head as she tries to overcome her trepidation in the anatomy lab. We spend a day with Sarah as she braves school and the free clinic—with its testy, unwashed patients—before the main action kicks off. At the clinic, we meet Lucy, a young prostitute who begs the doctor to give her an abortion (which was illegal at the time). The next day, Sarah gets a nasty shock when she recognizes Lucy on the anatomy lab table. Sarah begins to ask questions in places that are entirely unsuitable for a young lady of her status and reputation because she knows that no one else will. In Edinburgh of the 1890s, no one seems to miss one more prostitute.

While Sarah tries to manage school and her relatives, she digs deeper and deeper into Lucy’s life. Unfortunately for her, she often charges down blind alleys and makes enemies along the way. One of those enemies, her very own professor Merchiston, fascinates her in a way that readers of romance novels will recognize—though Sarah resists and the plot doesn’t make it easy for her to get past her first impressions of the man. Sarah’s blunders make the story that much more believable for me; I distrust amateur detectives who are too confident and capable on their first case.

The only thing I did have a problem with in this genuinely engrossing novel was the ending. I felt the solution to the mystery came too soon and didn’t make much sense considering where Sarah had spent her efforts. I can forgive this because I really enjoyed Sarah and Merchiston’s characters. (This is also a debut novel and I expect a few hiccups in a debut.) The ending of The Wages of Sin makes it clear that more adventures are in store for Sarah and the professor. I look forward to seeing them again in future novels.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

21787
The Princess Bride

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front.

To summarize for those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, The Princess Bride is Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world (once she learned to use soap). After her true love dies, she agrees to marry the prince of Florin—but he wants to use her to start a war with the country over the water. A few months before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by hired criminals, then re-kidnapped by a mysterious man in black. The man in black is Buttercup’s true love, returned from the sea, and the rest of the book is them trying to escape from the evil prince. Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda because it never gets too deep. There’s just enough plausibility to keep the plot afloat and offer plenty of opportunities for fighting and derring-do.

Because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I had the actors’ voices in my head as I read the familiar dialogue. (This isn’t a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, and Andre the Giant were the perfect people to play their characters.) Most of The Princess Bride (the book) made it into the movie; some bits of dialogue were taken verbatim. What the book provided was a bit more background about Florin and some of the characters, as well as a lot more of the frame narrative. I read the thirtieth anniversary edition, which has an extended introduction and a chapter of a planned-but-abandoned sequel. In it, Goldman (as a character) talks about the making of the book and the movie (which is biographical, as far as I can tell), but also about the origins of The Princess Bride as written by S. Morgenstern, a Florinese author, and how Goldman came to “translate” and “abridge” it. I think some readers will find Goldman (the character) a little tedious and whiny, but I kind of enjoyed his metafictional playing around.

I highly recommend this book for readers who need to disappear into a story for a few hours.

Mister Memory, by Marcus Sedgwick

27401262
Mister Memory

Most of us wish we had better memories. It would be nice not to blank on names and dates when under pressure. But I don’t think any of us would want a memory as perfect as Marcel Despres’. In Marcus Sedgwick’s Mister Memory, Marcel remembers everything from the time he was born (even before if we can believe him). He gets lost in Proustian reveries that can last for hours as details remind him of other memories which remind him of something else entirely. He’s even managed to turn his memory into a career. Unfortunately for Marcel, his memory regularly forces him to relive the moment when he shot his wife and killed her.

We meet Marcel shortly after the day he shot his wife. There’s no question about what happened. He caught his wife with her lover and shot her with the gun they had just bought. Marcel admits it to the police who show up. But instead of shipping him off to Devil’s Island, the local prefect of police decides to send him to Les Invalides, a Parisian mental asylum. His doctor is fascinated and keeps testing Marcel to see just how extensive Marcel’s memory is and how it works—and we start to see his memory as a curse.

Meanwhile, an inspector who can’t let Marcel’s case go keeps asking questions. First, the questions are about why Marcel was sent to Les Invalides instead of the prison colony. Then he asks about Marcel’s wife and her past. More and more loose threads appear and it turns out that the case of the man with the perfect memory, who can remember every moment of his wife’s shooting, is a lot more complicated than anyone realized.

When I first started Mister Memory, I was interested in the character Sedgwick created. I got lost with Marcel in his memories of life in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. But what really hooked me were the spectacular twists that started coming about halfway through the book. This is one of the best plotted books I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler

31125557
Blitzed

As a reader of nonfiction, I tend to return to the same subjects over and over again: Victorian social histories, the European theater of World War II, war crimes, and weird medical history. These are pretty broad territories, but narrow in the grand scheme of things. What I like about nonfiction in these areas is that each bit of new information the historians dig up fills in the picture a little more. I thought about this a lot while reading Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler (translated by Shuan Whiteside). Historians keep coming back to Hitler’s life, searching for a reason why he committed his terrible crimes, how he suckered an entire nation into following him. Hitler is the great evil and we want to understand. Ohler’s book on Nazi drug use goes a long way to explaining the irrationality of Hitler’s behavior during the war. I was fascinated.

Ohler dug into federal archives in Germany, the American National Archives, and German medical articles to trace the history of the use of drugs like Pervitin (an early methamphetamine), Eukodol (which contains the same active ingredient as oxycontin), cocaine, and other experimental drugs cooked up by German researchers in the early Twentieth century. Ohler points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis had strict ideas about sobriety—primarily as a response to the decadence of the Weimar republic. But as Hitler moved closer to war, those ideas started to fade away. The Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were all issued Pervitin in massive quantities to fuel massive territory grabs between 1939 and 1941. Wehrmacht soldiers were reported to go 72 hours without sleep on this highly addictive drug during the invasion of France.

All of this is very interesting, but what most grabbed my attention was Ohler’s descriptions of the relationship between Hitler and his personal physician, Theodore Morell, and Hitler’s constant use of drugs. Morell built his reputation on supplying vitamins and hormones to patients, which appealed to Hitler’s vegetarianism. Also, Morell somehow managed to relieve Hitler’s stress and diet induced bloating. Hitler trusted him so much that he never dismissed the doctor, even when the cures started to lose their effectiveness. Thanks to Ohler’s deciphering of Morell’s poorly written notes in the US National Archives, he learned that Morell started dosing Hitler with Eukodol in 1943.

Eukodol was a popular Weimar drug that induced euphoria, allowing users to float away into fantasy. After Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler, the dictator was tried with cocaine for pain from ruptured ear drums. For the rest of his life, Hitler would take Eukodol, cocaine, and various bizarre medications for Morell every other day or even daily. Throughout the war, Hitler held as much control over the armed forces as he could, making frequent seemingly inexplicable mistakes when ordering halts and marches. Drug use, especially of something like Eukodol, would do much to explain why Hitler constantly ignored reality and sent his troops into disaster, approved hair-brained schemes, and held on so long in the fact of immanent defeat.

Blitzed is a brilliant piece of historical work, but I did have one problem with Ohler’s writing. Occasionally, he tries to recreate moments in Hitler, Morell, and Göring’s lives that cannot be backed up with evidence. Ohler is much better when he thoroughly documents the medical science, Morell’s notes on Hitler, and other primary sources. I tended to skim the paragraphs with the recreated vignettes to get back to the history. Other than this irritation, I was hooked all the way through and I think it answers quite a few questions that have been unanswered for decades.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017. 

This week on the bookish internet

  • Learn more from Sophie Gilbert about Dr. Seuss’ anti-Nazi cartoons. (The Atlantic)
  • Zoe Dickinson apologizes to all the audiobooks she’s slept through. (Book Riot)
  • Rachel Wilkerson Miller tells the story of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. (Buzzfeed)
  • In a bit of good political, bookish news, Virginia has tossed out the law requiring labeling on “sexually explicit” books…like Romeo and Juliet. (The Guardian)
    • Speaking of politics, sort of, here are some book recommendations from the seven countries affected by Trump’s Muslim ban. (Book Riot)
  • Jessa Crispin ponders why we enjoy dystopias so much. (The Baffler)

Joy in the Morning, by P.G. Wodehouse

18049
Joy in the Morning

Of course, yesterday’s post doesn’t mean that I won’t indulge in a literary escape or two now and then. I read P.G. Wodehouse’s delightful Joy in the Morning on Saturday in between frantic sessions on Twitter. Wodehouse’s silliness was the perfect antidote to the news.

Originally published in 1946, Joy in the Morning is another breezy Jeeves and Wooster story. There are near-miss engagements, scheming, unlucky coincidences, shouting from elderly relatives, one burned down house, a hockey stick in the night, and lots and lots of witty language. I already knew from the series that everything always turns out well in the end thanks to the assistance of the ever helpful Jeeves. (This is exactly what I needed after a week of politics.)

The novel is somewhat different from the series. In this book, at any rate, Bertie Wooster is not quite as gormless as Hugh Laurie portrayed him. He is a bit daft, but mostly he’s just unlucky. He’s either in the wrong place and the wrong time or he gets caught up in a series of escalating blunders. His track record with trouble often brings even more trouble, as the more serious characters immediately blame him for things that really aren’t his fault. Jeeves, on the other hand, is much as Stephen Fry played him in the series. Jeeves doesn’t say much. He doesn’t need to. Everyone trusts his wisdom and savvy. As they should, because Jeeves always comes through.

What I loved most about Joy in the Morning is the language. The vocabulary is rich, eclectic, and sings across the page. Wodehouse doesn’t belabor jokes, so the humor ranges from slapstick to subtle wordplay. I really, really enjoyed this little novel.

 

What Reading Has Taught Me

I spend a good chunk of yesterday on Twitter, following the developments of the anti-refugee executive order signed by Trump—the protests, the lawyers sitting on the floor filing habeas briefs pro bono, the temporary stays ordered by Judges Donnelly and Brinkema. I retweeted news, contact numbers, recommendations to donate to groups fighting for refugees, and voicing my anger, sadness, and embarrassment at the actions of the government that claims to represent me. This is not a political blog and I’m not usually a political person. I don’t intend to turn this blog into another angry voice on the Internet. But I also don’t want my fellow readers to think that I am carrying on link normal. Though I am limited in what I can do, I am raising my voice against injustice.

tumblr_nfbfehfqem1sesaigo1_1280
From Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Part of this is because my parents raised me right. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) And part of this is because I am a reader. The books I read have given me glimpses into the lives of people of color, LGBTQ people, refugees, victims of crime, heroes and heroines, immigrants, and more. These glimpses have helped me learn to see the world from more than one perspective and be empathetic.

The news just this week has been so awful and outrageous (in the sense that it outraged me) that it’s tempting to disappear into fiction. Fiction is a splendid retreat from the world. But, as Jayson Flores recommends at The Mary Sue, we should not retreat into books or movies or other distractions. Readers can’t forget about the real world when events demand loud, decisive action. The stories we’ve read about all those different kinds of people should have taught us to be better than that.

I’ve been thinking more and more about Atticus Finch lately. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus defends a black man who was accused of raping a white woman. His defense shows the case to be a racist frame up. At one point, Atticus stands outside the jailhouse to defend his client from the possibility of being lynched by the townspeople. Atticus used his privilege as a white man to do the right thing. He did not stand aside because he wasn’t black or poor or because there was a certain amount of risk in taking on the job. But he stood up for his belief in justice. His bravery made a huge impression on me when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I consider Mockingbird to be one of the books that helped form me as a person and a reader.

I intend to use whatever privilege I have to resist the un-American and unconstitutional actions of the current president for as long as I have to.