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 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.

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 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.

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.

Displaced, by Stephan Abarbanell

34217691Lilya Wasserfall is a soldier in the fight for an independent Jewish state when she is drafted to finish up some unfinished business from the last war in Displaced, by Stephen Abarbanell. Her mission is to find the lost brother of Elias Lind. Lind left Germany in the 1920s while his brother remained in Berlin to further his research on chemical warfare before disappearing into the Nazi forced labor system. There are a few leads for Lilya to follow, the most curious being that the British reported the elder Lind’s death in 1941.

After a quick trip to London during which she discovers some scientific skullduggery, Lilya’s quest takes her to the refugee camps of post-war Germany. It quickly becomes apparent that Lilya and Elias aren’t the only ones who want to know if Raphael Lind survived the war. Lilya picks up on more than one man tailing her in London and in Germany. The more she learns about what Raphael did during the war, the more it makes sense that certain parties are very interested in his current whereabouts.

There are parts of Displaced that were deeply affecting: the fight to restart the lives of displaced refugees and Holocaust survivors, pre-war romances gone awry, a detour into stolen books. But, after a while, it all seemed like a bit too much. Clues from the first part of the novel turned out to be either red herrings or simple McGuffins. The action sequences, which added a bit of spice to the book, were over far too quickly to be effective. Displaced is a messy novel.

I did enjoy Lilya’s journey. At the beginning of the novel, Lilya is very much a forward-looking sabra. Her life is all about helping to create an independent Israel (and about setting aside her grief for her fallen adopted brother). Being a native of British Mandate era Palestine, Lilya is not entirely sympathetic to European Jews. But the more time she spends with survivors in Germany, the more she gets wrapped up in their collective story and the fight to help them. So, in spite of its problems, I was hooked by this book—partly because I had no idea where it was going.

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

Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

34466659Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields (translated by Allison M. Charette) took me to a place I’ve never been before in fiction: nineteenth century Madagascar. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of Tsito, a slave turned craftsman, and Fara, a villager who always wanted to be rich, as they get caught up against Queen Ranavalona I‘s attempts to restore pre-encounter traditions and beliefs.

Spanning nearly twenty years in the middle of the nineteenth century, Beyond the Rice Fields opens with Tsito being purchased by a zebu (cattle) trader. The trader leaves Tsito with his unofficial third family in a central highlands village. Even though he’s a slave, Tsito is raised alongside Fara by her mother and grandmother. Tsito eventually resigns himself to his new life and begins looking for opportunities to make money to buy his freedom. Meanwhile, Fara enjoys her privileged life as a rich trader’s daughter. Someday, she plans to marry a rich man after making her name at the fampitaha (yearly dancing competitions).

Over the course of the novel, Tsito and Fara’s statuses reverse. Tsito makes brilliant connections and acquires marketable skills. Fara, on the other hand, begins to suffer from the first waves of the queen’s policies to stamp out Christianity and other European influences in the country. After her father’s zebu trade is taken away from him, Fara loses her mother to one of the first waves of tangena trials—ritual trials by poison for Christians, sorcerers, and others who piss off the wrong people. Following Tsito and Fara gave me a sense of the deadly chaos that gripped the country.

Antsahatsiroa, Madagascar, 1862-1865
(Image via Met Museum)

There was one thing that bothered me about this book, even though I really enjoyed the setting. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or if the code-switching was part of the original text. At times, characters would make speeches with what seem like traditional phrases and oaths. Then, sometimes in the same section of dialog, switch to phrases straight from modern English. The weird blend of high and low speech didn’t work for me at all. This translation preserves some Malagasy terms and phrases for flavor, which redeems the book’s dialog a bit.

Apart from the issues with dialog—which might just be my hang up—I was fascinated by Beyond the Rice Fields. Once I stopped switching between the book and the relevant articles on Wikipedia, I settled in for a long read about life, work, love, tradition, belief, revenge, and survival in a place that hasn’t been written about much. I’d love to read more books about the island.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. It will be released 31 October 2017.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

27071490The multi-award winning family saga Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, deserves all the praise it’s received. The story follows the separated halves of one woman’s family throw almost three hundreds years of Ghanaian and American history. It begins in the 1760s with two sisters (who don’t know that they’re sisters) who are separated. One sister becomes the wife of a British slave dealer. The other is sold into slavery and sent to the American colonies. Over the next centuries, the family is continually disrupted. Generations are torn apart and children are lost. I think this book is going to continue breaking reader hearts for a long time.

No one in Maame’s line has an easy life. Even the privileged members of the family have to wrestle with their consciences about how their parents make money (during the slave-trading days). There is a moment much later in the book when a grandmother tells her granddaughter a little story to explain her actions and her family. Akua says:

When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. (242*)

For hundreds of years, each generation has to start over. Most have to start over because they’ve been kidnapped and enslaved (or murdered). Others because they need to hide from their pasts. A few members of the family reach their absolute limits and refuse to live in misery.

The breaks in the generations mean that each generation is completely cut off from the past. They have to create new traditions. But it also means that their support networks are fragile or non-existent. One of the characters in the last generation has a moment with his immediate family where he thinks about who was lost:

In that room, with his family, he would sometimes imagine a different room, a fuller family. He would imagine so hard that at times he thought he could see them. Sometimes in a hut in Africa, a patriarch holding a machete; sometimes outside in a forest of palm trees, a crowd watched a young woman carrying a bucket on her head; sometimes in a cramped apartment with too many kids, or a small, failing farm, around a burning tree or in a classroom. He would see these things while his grandmother prayed and sang, prayed and sang, and he would want so badly for all the people he made up in his head to be there in that room, with him. (290)

For us readers, there are themes and motifs that repeat across the generations. The motifs keep the branches of the family linked through their fears of water and fire, fertility issues, black stones, finding and losing religion, mothers’ love, and more. At times, what happens to one branch of the family are mirrored in the other. There are also Akua’s dreams of her family’s past, which bring a satisfying symmetry to Homegoing.

As I read Homegoing, I had to wonder if the family would ever come back together—until I realized that this story wasn’t really about continuity and reunion. It’s about keeping going, whether one wants to or not. It’s about recognizing the sensation of being lost, apart from community, and yet someone finding peace or at least equilibrium in spite of it. It’s about creating identity from the ground up and trying not to collapse under the weight of history. In the midst of all the heartbreak, I marveled at the strength of the woman and men in Maame’s line. Homegoing really is a masterpiece.

* Quotes are from the 2016 hardcover edition from Alfred A. Knopf.

The Visitant, by Megan Chance

24982850Elena Spira believes she’s prepared to help her patient. She’s dealt with drug addicts and alcoholics before. She’s even helped epileptics, which is no mean feat in 1884 when the only “treatments” are cold water baths and bromides. But when she arrives at the dilapidated Casa Basilio at the beginning of The Visitant, by Megan Chance, Elena quickly realizes that her patient will be the toughest one she’s had to care for yet…and that’s before the ghost shows up.

The Casa Basilio in Venice is no one’s first choice as a place to convalesce. The place is falling apart. The servants are clearly skimming. The owner’s aunt shares fictional DNA with Mrs. Danvers; she still pines for her lost daughter, Laura. The patient, Samuel, is recovering from a long debauch, a beating, and his worsening epilepsy. Samuel’s parents dispatch Elena to Venice after offering her family a deal they can’t refuse. All she has to do is treat Samuel, return him to New York, and she gets to travel Europe for months (and not marry her cousin).

Everyone in this book is in an impossible position. They all have deadly secrets. The climate is terrible. Nothing goes right. When Samuel starts to show signs that he’s possessed by Laura’s ghost, Elena gets pulled into an ugly mystery that tests her rational medical mind. Ghosts can’t be real in Elena’s world, but there’s no other way to explain Samuel’s attacks, his inexplicable use of Venetian, and the more-cold-than-usual breezes that fill the rooms of the Casa.

This book completely hooked me. I barely put it down because I just had to know what really happened to Laura and who would win in the battle of wills between Elena and Samuel. (The steamy scenes between Elena and Nero Basilio are icing on the cake.) This fast blend of historical fiction and horror was exactly what I needed after the long, generational story of Britannia Mews.

Britannia Mews, by Margery Sharp

29894610When she first steps on to the page in Margery Sharp’s Britannia Mews, Adelaide has very little clue how to operate in the world. She can be forgiven at this point, since she’s under ten and is the sheltered daughter of comfortably middle class Victorian parents. Over the course of the novel—which spans more than fifty years—we see Adelaide grow into a very posed woman who doesn’t seem to change at all. Adelaide’s world rewards the stubborn.

Adelaide feels uncomfortable with her role as dutiful daughter and potential society bride. The only thing that appeals is her drawing instructor, who flirts with her after a solo lesson. Lacking and other options, and feeling flattered by the attention of a man she believes will someday be a great artist, Adelaide lets herself fall in love with Henry Lambert. When she starts pushing for marriage, Henry grows cool. Still, Adelaide manages to get married to the reluctant man and moves into the Britannia Mews (a slum in 1875). Life is far different from her coddled existence in Kensington. No matter how much she pushes, Adelaide can’t make Henry a better man. All she can do is raise the standards of her own little dwelling—at least until Lambert takes a tumble down the stairs one day and breaks his neck.

Britannia Mews is an unusual fortune’s wheel type of book. It’s gentler. While Adelaide does fall very far from her former life, she’s never truly in desperate straights (in spite of some blackmail from an odious neighbor). Her wheel starts rising after hitting its lowest point and, as Adelaide rises, the Mews gets gentrified. Adelaide’s saving grace is her refusal to lower her standards (apart from a few months of moderate gin drinking). Once she figures out who she is, she never bends to what other people want her to do. She won’t go back as a penitent to her family or become the victim her blackmailer wants. Adelaide is a remarkable woman.

This novel leaps forward in time to World War I, the 1920s, and World War II. The world changes. Adelaide does…not change so much. And yet she fits in with any era because she doesn’t expect not to. When I read the first half of the novel, I was worried that Adelaide would follow the same route as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Margery Sharp, however, is not Edith Wharton. There are characters with flaws that would, in a Wharton novel, be tragic and probably fatal. In Britannia Mews, redemption is possible. Of course, being a Sharp novel, redemption comes from living long enough to prove the naysayers wrong.

Death in St. Petersburg, by Tasha Alexander

33602097Tasha Alexander’s Death in St. Petersburg sees Lady Emily Hargreaves and her husband Colin off to the Russian Empire. Colin’s superiors in the British government have sent him to the Russian to help them investigate anarchists and other subversives. Emily joins him to keep him company and enjoy the splendors of the city. It’s a fine plan, until she stumbles across a murdered ballerina after a performance.

Because Emily cannot resist a good crime, she starts poking around immediately. (She gets yelled at by the police more than once for sticking her nose into the case.) Her persistence is rewarded when the ballerina, Irusya’s, lover hires Emily to poke around even more. She follows her instincts and the clues to dive deeply into the world of Russian ballet (there are cameos by some of the biggest names of the era, like Mathilde Kschessinska and Pierina Lagnani).

Mathilde Kschessinska

The pieces refuse to fall together, however. Jealousy just doesn’t seem to work as a motive. Irusya’s lover and past lovers all have alibis. None of the leads go anywhere. But then things—as they usually do in Russia—get political. Anarchist and Socialist literature turns up. Irusya’s best friend, Katenka, has suspiciously subversive relatives and friends. Colin (futilely) cautions Emily to stay away from the politics, as the activists are more than willing to toss bombs and shoot people. And, as usual, Emily ignores his warnings in order to find out what happened to Irusya.

Death in St. Petersburg is the twelfth entry in the series and features several characters from past adventures (including the hilariously obnoxious Sebastian Capet). That said, I had no problem diving into the book even though I haven’t read any of the latest volumes.  What I loved most about this book was the way it brings the St. Petersburg of 1900 back to life. Emily and Colin pause to converse along the Neva and Emily once chases a man through the Hermitage. I rather enjoyed this whirlwind novel set at the end of Imperial Russia’s reign, which begins as a fascinating look into high Russian culture and ends with a tense race to stop an explosive plot.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.