The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027It’s never easy to suddenly find oneself in the middle of a centuries’ old tangle of warfare, rebellion, and politics. Worse still, there’s magic in the mix. Nahri, at the beginning of S.A. Chakraborty’s astonishingly beautiful and thrilling The City of Brass, thinks she has a pretty good handle on life as a con artist in eighteenth century Cairo. But when she accidentally summons a djinn, Nahri is swept up into a strange world straight out of Arab and Persian myth and a lot of political wrangling. She is, quite simply, in over her head.

Nahri doesn’t know who her people are. She managed to bring herself up on the streets of Cairo by running scams. She’s always been able to do strange things like healing people and understanding every language spoken to her like a native. But when she attempts an exorcism (for the money, not because she believes in what she’s doing), Nahri manages to summon up a djinn from years of slavery and violence. The next thing Nahri knows, she’s on the run from ifrits, ghouls, and other mythical creatures. While she might have wandered into a fairy tale, this one is deadly serious. Not only that but her only guide, Dara, is irritated by her questions and his duty to shepherd her to the presumed safety of Daevabad.

Nahri is a scrappy survivor and I loved getting to know her. (Watching her needle the men around her is always a delight.) But I felt for her as she is forced to navigate her new world. There are the great expectations forced on her once Nahri’s heritage becomes clear. It’s as if Nahri has walked into a play in progress and no one handed her her lines. Everyone around her knows the city’s history, the properties of all the magical inhabitants, and what the all the factions are after. The former con artist is suddenly a pawn in a lot of different games.

It’s not all politics and magical training montages, however. There are several utterly thrilling action scenes in The City of Brass. I actually read through a few of them so fast that I had to go back and reread them; I raced ahead because I just had to know if my favorite characters survived. No one pulls their punches in this book and, even though this is a trilogy, it seems like no one is guaranteed to make it through to the next volumes apart from Nahri herself.

The City of Brass completely swept me away. (I loved it so much that I’m a little angry that I have to wait a little longer than everyone else to read the second book in the trilogy.) On top of the amazing, action-packed plot is a fully realized world full of magic and creatures from a tradition that hasn’t been thoroughly mined in English-language fiction. This review barely scrapes the surface of what I found in The City of Brass, but I will say that I was so hooked by this book that I read it in one sitting this evening after work. Dinner was whatever I could grab and eat with one hand. I am going to be singing this book’s praises for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

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Wonders Will Never Cease, by Robert Irwin

34145298Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, by Robert Irwin’s Wonders Will Never Cease repeatedly demonstrates that fiction will always win a competition for imaginative bizarreness. This metafictional novel follows the life of Anthony Woodville, an actual historical figure, as he is bounced around by the vagaries of War of the Roses-era politics and by the fictional wrangling of the king’s alchemist and Sir Thomas Malory. This is not a biographical novel so much as it is a bibliographic one. By the end, I think I had contemplated dozens of the purposes and consequences of storytelling along with the characters. Be warned, however. This is not an easy book to read because it is mostly people telling stories to each other. The action happens quickly and mostly off the page.

Anthony Woodville fought for the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton before suffering a terrible wound. Everyone believes he was dead for three days before waking up. Unfortunately for Woodville, the Yorkists won and Edward IV is now king. Also unfortunately for Woodville, the days he spent “dead” draws attention from George Ripley the Alchemist. Ripley—who, even though he was an actual historical figure, constantly made me think of the later Ripley’s Believe It or Not—almost immediately begins spreading stories about Woodville’s supernatural adventures. (People keep asking Woodville if he really does wear a hair shirt. He does not.)

For the rest of Wonders Will Never Cease, we see a blend of actual history and myth, Arthurian legends, hints of Chaucer and François Villon, wonders and theological “science,” tall tales, and much more. I confess I had to read several articles about the actual Anthony Woodville and his contemporaries just to keep track of what was real and what wasn’t. In retrospect, this was probably cheating. I suspect that this book is mean to be read with little knowledge of history so that, like many of the characters, it’s impossible to tell between fact and fiction.

Wonders Will Never Cease is definitely not meant to be read as historical fiction. Rather, it’s fodder to ponder the many reasons we tell stories. In this book, stories are told to instruct, to make people marvel, to relate history, and to build up reputations. We are also given many opportunities to reflect on the unintended consequences of story-telling (hair shirts). The best audience for this book may be other English majors, who think about these things anyway. Readers who love medieval literature and the Arthurian legends may also like this book as Irwin cleverly created what sounds like period-accurate dialog and story-telling practices.

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

Deadly Cure, by Lawrence Goldstone

34445246Lawrence Goldstone’s Deadly Cure begins with one of the worst things that can happen to a doctor. Up-and-coming doctor Noah Whitestone is summoned to the home of a wealthy New York couple because the family’s youngest son is very ill. Whitestone thinks this is his chance to become the doctor to the city’s upper crust until the boy dies that night. As far as Whitestone (and the experts he consults) knows, the boy should have been alright. His guilt spurs him to investigate the boy’s death, an investigation that almost immediately turns into a crusade against unethical medical experimentation.

Noah is foursquare against patent medicines. At the time, before the 1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, he has a good point. Most of the “medicines” on the market were full of opium, alcohol, and toxic materials. But the opium and alcohol make people feel better for a while, so they are so popular Noah can’t do much more than admonish people. When he visits the rich family’s boy, he immediately recognizes the symptoms of opium withdrawal. The boy’s mother adamantly argues that her son hasn’t been taking any patent medicines. Noah treats the boy for his withdrawal symptoms anyway and leaves for a few hours to attend other patients. When he comes back, the boy is clearly suffering an overdose of some kind of opiate.

bayer-heroin-bottle
Bayer started selling heroin in 1895 as a “non-addictive” opiate.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The death of a rich child could end his career, but Noah is more worried about how the boy actually died. He knows it wasn’t his fault. He did what he was supposed to do. Still, he starts to ask questions and learns that some of his rival doctors are handing out mysterious green and blue pills to poor children. They’re clearly testing a new drug and keeping everything under wraps. Then Noah is approached by a journalist for a radical newspaper who tells Noah he has evidence that there is a conspiracy to conduct unethical pharmaceutical tests and keep the patent medicine money wheel spinning. With the help of a group of some anarcho-communists and a curious medical examiner, Noah digs even more deeply into the conspiracy.

Deadly Cure races along, with some pointed comments about the wealth gap, social justice, etc. that read like digs at current events and few research drops, to a conclusion that I found disappointing and confusing because of the choices Noah makes. I enjoyed the characters, especially the women in the book. They are wonderfully take charge and capable. What I liked best about Deadly Cure was the opportunity to dive into a fictional account of the real pharmaceutical race to bring aspirin*, buffered aspirin, and heroin to market. So while Deadly Cure is flawed, readers who like medical mysteries will enjoy it.

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


* Sawbones produced a recent episode about aspirin that is utterly fascinating.

This week on the bookish internet

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

89717I’m not sure if The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, is a horror story that has lots of explanations for what happens—or if it’s meant to remain inexplicable. Either way, I found the story utterly gripping. Not only did I want to know what was happening, but I was intrigued by the way the the house comes to malevolent life in this novel and drives at least one of its visitors mad.

The opening paragraph sets a tone of dread and inevitable violence. It’s so forthright that it reads like a warning, one that the protagonists should’ve had before they decided to follow paranormal investigator Dr. Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House. The good(ish) doctor wants people who’ve had possibly supernatural experiences to stay in the house to see if he can document real paranormal activity. His invitations don’t get many takers, but he does convince two women who already wanted to leave their current homes to try something different. Theodora and Eleanor agree to spend time at the house, along with Montague and Luke, a relative of the current owner.

It’s not long before things go bump in the night, literally. Over the course of the book, details about the house’s and the character’s history. There are tantalizing clues about what might be going on—repeated phrases and events, possible psychological interpretations, etc.—but none of my hypotheses really fit what happens in the few days that Eleanor et al. spent at the house. There are pieces that refused be forced into a complete picture. I’m rather glad that this book is a book club pick because it means I can hash out some of my ideas with fellow readers.

In spite of all the psychological terror, I found The Haunting of Hill House to be unexpectedly funny. The characters banter during the day, partly to cope with what happens at night, but also because these four weirdos click and enjoy riffing on each other’s statements. Without these moments of levity, I think I might have found this novel unbearable dreadful, in the full sense of inducing dread. Dr. Montague’s methodically nutty wife even had me laughing out loud.

The Haunting of Hill House is a strange, disturbing tale. Because the perspective moves in and out of Eleanor’s head, it’s hard to keep track of what might be real and what isn’t. It’s genius in the way it keeps readers off-balance for its full length; it kept me constantly guessing and reassessing what I thought I knew. Even if there isn’t an explanation for what happened to Eleanor and the gang at Hill House, I’m not disappointed in this book. Solutions aren’t everything. The reading experience is and I had a great time reading The Haunting of Hill House.

The Shadow District, by Arnaldur Indriðason

35011768While this latest novel from Arnaldur Indriðason does not feature his well-known Inspecter ErlendurThe Shadow District shares strong similarities. Like many of the Erlendur novels, this one centers on a pair of linked crimes that happened decades apart. The detective here, Konrád, is a retired officer of Reykjavík’s criminal investigation division. He claims to be happily retired, but it’s clear by the way he horns his way into an investigation of the murder of a 90-year-old man that he’s very bored.

The murder of Stefán Thordárson doesn’t leave the police much to go on. He was smothered; that’s all they can figure out at first. Stefán’s apartment has so few personal items that it’s hard for anyone to get an idea of what lead to his death. The man didn’t seem to have any friends or family either. The only thing that keeps his case from being a complete dead end is a trio of newspaper articles about an unsolved murder from 1944. Konrád trades on an old friendship in CID to dig into both cases. Slowly, methodically, he begins to put together the scant clues with luck and plenty of hunches.

Konrád’s chapters alternate with chapters set in 1944 in which Stefán (who turns out to be a Canadian of Icelandic descent) and his detective partner, Flóvent, try to solve the murder of a woman found dumped behind a theater. As hard as Konrád’s job is, at least he has things like databases and CCTV to help him. In the 1940s, police had little more at their disposal than lots of good shoe leather and persistence to get to the bottom of things.

We know from the outset of The Shadow District that the two cases are connect. What we don’t know until the end is what really happened—mostly through careful editing to keep names and bits of evidence hidden for later. Some readers might hate this because it doesn’t really give us a fair shot at solving the crime before Konrád does. For Erlendur fans, The Shadow District might help tide them over until the next one. If nothing else, this novel is a competent mystery set in an interesting country.

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

The scariest books I’ve ever read…

The books that scare me most aren’t the most obviously scary. In fact, few of them are ever classified as horror novels and I have no idea if other readers will find these books as terrifying as I do. In the spirit of the season, here are some books that scared the crap out of me:

149267The Stand, by Stephen King

I first read The Stand on a road trip through the mostly empty (except for farms) fields of the Great Plains. I got so freaked out by this book—the first pandemic book I’d ever read—that I had to switch between it and a volume of Calvin and Hobbes so my brain wouldn’t combust. In spite of this, I’ve re-read The Stand a couple of times since that first reading.

Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Vinge’s version of a future in which all information is commodified scared the spit out of me because a) it seemed entirely plausible and b) the consequences of destroying multiple independent sources of information meant that “reality” as we know it could be manipulated by whoever “owned” the information.

Winter, by Rod Rees

Imagine being trapped in a pocket universe populated by the most violent and unstable of history’s villains. Just thinking about this book makes me uneasy.

Bitter Seeds, by Ian Tregillis

This unusual thriller got me because one of the Nazi antagonists was so good at predicting the future that the protagonists’ plans were already worked into her plans. How do you defeat someone like that?

6288The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t think I’ve ever read a bleaker book than this. The Road scared me because there was no possibility of rescue but so very many ways of dying horribly.

Reading a genuinely scary book is always an immersive experience for me. For one reason or another I get sucked in and can’t let go until the catharsis of the finale. Either it’s the characters or the plot or the premise, but I just have to know how it all turns out. Then, once I’m done, I have to find a way to deal with the emotional aftermath. In the case of these particular books, I’m clearly still working on that.

The Midnight Queen, by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

20821047After a heavy read like The Revolution of Marina M., I needed something like Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s The Midnight Queen. It has so many things that I find delightful in a book: magic blended with history; a tall, shy guy falling in love with a talented, bookish girl; Celtic languages; cunning plots; and smart alecks. There was enough heft to keep my brain engaged but packed with plenty of humor and sweetness to keep things fun.

Gray Marshall is a scholarship boy at Oxford’s Merlin College when he is talked into participating in an errand that goes horribly wrong. The next thing he (and we) knows, he’s being hauled off to Brittany by his tutor to rusticate while his superiors figure out what to do with him. The Professor is a boor, but it isn’t until Gray starts snooping—and spending time with the Professor’s daughter, Sophie—that he figures out how much of a villain the man is.

Sophie is a powerful, albeit untrained, magician. She’s been sneaking into her father’s library for years to learn more about magical theory. Gray’s arrival, and his willingness to teach a female, is a blessing for her. The lessons lead to a growing friendship (and more, because this is a fluffy book), but also more discoveries about the evil Professor. Once Gray and Sophie figure out that there’s a plot to poison powerful Britons, things get literally explosive and they have to flee back to England to try and save some lives.

The rest of The Midnight Queen passes by quickly. I had so much fun reading this book that I could hardly bear to put the book down to get dinner or put on my PJs. (I stayed up until 1:00 AM to finish it.) Once I get out from under Mount Must-Read-Soon-Because-Deadlines, I’m definitely checking out the next book from the library.

The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch

34523120Communism never took human nature into account, which meant that the workers’ paradise was always going to be just a pipe dream. Of course, in the Russia of 1917, the Bolsheviks were willing to go to any lengths to force the rest of their countrymen to try to create that paradise. For people like Marina Makarova, protagonist of Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., this meant that they had to shift for themselves as best they could while trying to get around the increasingly complex and discriminatory bureaucracy. Throughout the book, Marina encounters person after person who is only out for themselves. It is the worst place at the worst time for a passionate, naive girl who doesn’t know what she wants and is used to being cared for by servants.

After a prologue that takes away some of the tension by revealing that she survives and escapes the nascent Soviet Union, we meet 16-year-old, St. Petersburg native Marina at a party for her aristocratic set early in 1917. She is struggling with her strong physical attraction for Kolya while also flirting with Communism via her friendship with the sharp-tongued Varvara. She doesn’t have any political convictions herself, but she empathizes with the poor. Her parents seem willing to let Marina and Kolya flirt, they are increasingly angry with her for her slumming with Varvara and the teeming millions of the city.

The Revolution of Marina M. covers 1917 through 1919. Marina is caught more than once by the rapidly developing violence of the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war. She might have been able to keep her head down once she moves in with an anarchic group of Futurist poets, but she’s caught between jealous lovers, revolutionary friends, and aristocratic, anti-Bolshevik parents. The other people in her life never seem to show their best sides when Marina’s life is in peril. Granted, it’s hard to stick one’s neck out when the price might be starvation, imprisonment, or execution. On top of this, in Marina’s case, is the fact that most of the people in her life grow exasperated with her fickle heart and ineptitude. Something about Marina brings out the worst in a lot of people and they’re reluctant to do much for her.

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Russian revolutionaries in 1917
(Image via Wikicommons)

In spite of all this, Marina somehow soldiers on. She survives hunger, kidnapping and rape, imprisonment, and treat of summary execution. Because of her attachment to her parents and her friends, she never becomes a devoted revolutionary. She does become a devoted survivor, though never in a way that stretched my credulity. What I did have a hard time believing was the strange ending sequence of the novel, when Marina falls in with a group of people practicing some kind of transcendentalist hooey. I could see this section as an internal revolution for our protagonist, in which she finally learns to stop relying on others to bail her out. But it’s so weird that the last 100+ pages just didn’t work for me. (The ending also leaves a big question unanswered.)

The Revolution of Marina M. is probably too long. It’s definitely too histrionic. But I’ll admit that I was hooked for most of it. By the time I got to the part I didn’t like, I was so close to the end I couldn’t quit. What I liked most about this book was the way that Fitch brought 1917 St. Petersburg back to life through the eyes of a bewildered girl. I imagine that Marina’s experience of politics was a common one; unlike dedicated Communists, most of what happened politically in those years seemed like one unexpected blow after another. Fitch has a deft hand with the research. So while The Revolution of Marina M. is definitely an imperfect book, it does have some things to recommend it to readers who are willing to put up with a heavy dose of melodrama in their historical fiction.

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

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, by Ruth Emmie Lang

33574161I was utterly charmed by Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, a novel about a reclusive man with strange abilities told by the people who knew him as well as anyone could. From the doctor who delivered him to his foster sister, adopted mother, and his frequently lost love, everyone knows that there’s something odd about Weylyn Gray. It rains when he’s upset and woodland creatures bring him presents. Oh, and he was partially raised by wolves.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance jumps from decade to decade as Weylyn touches other characters’ lives with a mix of good and bad luck. Weylyn’s abilities are never fully explained, which I think adds to sense of sustained curiosity as people meet and lose him over time. For the most part, Weylyn and his ad hoc family and friends treat him like a secret. No one else will believe them anyway about the weather and the animals and the shockingly verdant plants that follow in his war. Further, there’s something about Weylyn makes people protective.

What saves this book from being tritely inspirational—Weylyn often reads like a socially anxious Jesus—is the fact that, over and over, things don’t work out according to anyone’s plans. Just like bad weather, animals, and sudden gardens, unintended consequences follow him throughout his life. His friends and family are more than willing to take the risk, but Weylyn is terrified of accidentally hurting someone with his abilities. He’d rather take to the woods and live like a Disney hermit than chance it.

This isn’t a perfect book. There is one misstep at the end of the book, but I chalk that up to the limitations of having the book narrated by characters other than Weylyn. Readers willing to over look this and Weylyn’s more messiah-like moments will find a quirky, fast read for those of us who don’t trust happy, uncomplicated endings. Over and over, Weylyn’s plot arc demonstrates that love and life are often dangerous. The rewards, however, are much better than a safe loneliness.

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