The Maze at Windermere, by Gregory Blake Smith

34962936Shakespeare said it first: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” This is certainly true in Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere. In fact, the course of love (or something sinister masquerading as love) runs in such crooked paths that at first it’s hard to tell if the characters are even on the same one. This novel is more like a series of linked stories that share a setting (Newport, Rhode Island) and themes of unrequited love, deceit, dependence, dissociation, and observation. As the narratives draw to their finales, coincidences and motifs pile up to highlight the similarities and differences in the choices the characters make in their attempts to get love or something like it.

The first chapters of The Maze at Windermere almost made me give up. The first character we meet is a tennis pro in the resort town of Newport who finds himself somewhat dependent on the indulgence of a very wealthy family. (I don’t know why I’m so turned off by tennis pros, but I’m going to just chalk it up as a personal eccentricity.) When Henry James showed up, I was very tempted to give up on the book altogether. I loathe Henry James because the one time I tried to read one of his books, The Turn of the Screw, I found the prose impenetrably dense and I hate it when someone makes me feel like an idiot.

I think it was the lure of the puzzle that kept me going. I wasn’t going to let the ghost of Henry James hold me back. So I kept reading. I met characters who didn’t quite know what they wanted until it was snatched away from them or who thought they knew what they wanted until something sent them haring down left turns. Over and over, I saw characters wrestle with what it was they wanted from life, whether it was love, security, or knowledge of others. Only one of the narratives, the one set in 1692, is fairly straightforward and the other narrative circle around it as if to show us all the ways things can go wrong when one refuses to be honest.

There’s a lot to unpack, as we English majors say, in The Maze at Windermere. I’m sure I didn’t understand everything lurking under the surface of these connected stories—mostly because everything I know about Henry James and his work comes from Wikipedia. In particular, the moments in which several of the characters have mystical experiences (a nod to the work of James’ brother, William) require a lot more thought, since I was too busy trying to spot all the links between characters and plots.

The Maze at Windermere is definitely not a light read, so I would only recommend it to readers looking for a challenge. It’s very clever, requires patience, and ready access to the internet if, like me, you feel the temptation to run down hunches and look up names. I’ve never read anything like this book. It tackles topics—unrequited love and dissociation in particular—that I can’t recall ever seeing explored in depth in fiction. Those who take up the challenge will be amply rewarded. I feel quite a lot smarter now because I’m pretty sure I understood part of what the book contained.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.


King Zeno, by Nathaniel Rich

35259559Nathaniel Rich’s King Zeno is the second novel I’ve read recently that takes on the Axeman Murders of New Orleans—which is fitting since it’s been a century since the still-unsolved murders were committed. (Read my review of The Axeman, by Ray Celestin.) This fictional take on the murders rotates between a police officer with PTSD, a widow who heads a major construction project in the city, and a jazz cornet player. King Zeno is stuffed with the sights and sounds of New Orleans in the winter of 1917-1918. At times, the Axeman Murders get a lost as the characters witness the evolution of hot jazz, weather the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the construction of the city’s industrial canal.

New Orleans police officer Billy Bastrup, one of our three narrators, is having a hard time doing his job. Being a cop in New Orleans has never been easy, but Billy is haunted by an incident that happened while he was a soldier in France during the Great War. He’s not always sure he’s not hallucinating. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart, two Black men are committing armed robbery on the city streets, and the Axeman Murders are immanent.

Beatrice Vizzini has all the makings of a criminal mastermind. She inherited her husband’s “shadow business” after his death, but now she wants to go legitimate by having her company build a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Unfortunately, her disturbing son is reluctant to let go of the shadow business because it gives him such an excellent outlet for his violent urges.

Kid Ory, seen here with Louis Armstrong in 1918, appears as a character in King Zeno.

Our last narrator is Slim Izzy Zeno, a jazz musician who has a gift for making his trumpet talk and shout and howl. While Billy and Beatrice are interesting, fully realized characters, I really enjoyed reading about Izzy because he provides an entrée to the world of hot jazz, one of my favorite music genres. Whenever I read an Izzy chapter, I wanted more and was kind of reluctant to go back to reading about the other narrators’ woes.

King Zeno is a bit of a mishmash. If you’re not familiar with the Axeman Murders, it might be hard to see how things are going to link up. Because I read Celestin’s The Axeman, I knew about some of the intersections in advance. I’m actually glad about this. Knowing ahead of time about some of the book’s twists kept me from getting frustrated with Rich as more and more things happened to his characters that weren’t about what I would’ve thought was a major point in any story set in 1917-1918 New Orleans.

Perhaps a better way of selling this book is to say that it’s a story about a time and place, not about any particular event. King Zeno is a book to slide into and is one of the best representations of the idea of what New Orleans is (at least to people who don’t actually live there). This book is full of sin and music and I enjoyed those parts immensely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

35133064Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill rings a lot of my bells: tough, original female protagonist; intriguing mystery; and a richly described setting that teaches me about a time and place I’ve never read about before. In this book, we are whisked away to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1921 to tag along with the first female lawyer. Perveen Mistry, a Parsi woman, usually works on contracts, wills, and other legal paperwork (since she’s not allowed to appear in court) when she finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.

Perveen has a protective streak when it comes to women who have been wronged by the legal system. (We find out why in increasingly heartbreaking flashbacks to Perveen’s marriage.) When she sees some suspicious things in paperwork asking for three widows’ dowries to be transferred to a wakf (Muslim charity). The signatures are wrong and the whole thing seems strange. So, Perveen takes her briefcase and heads over to their home to start asking questions. The widows live in purdah, which means that Perveen’s gender is a virtue for once. She can enter the zenana, the secluded part of their home. Unfortunately, Perveen’s questions stir up trouble. When she has to return to pick up her misplaced briefcase, she discovers that the man who runs the household for the women has been murdered.

Even though the practice of purdah is meant to keep women hidden away from the rest of the world, these widows’ zenana is full of secret scandals. Each chapter takes us deeper into the three widows’ lives and their worldly concerns about money, security, and their children’s futures. Perveen is a sensitive advocate for the widows. Because of her upbringing as the daughter of a renowned Bombay lawyer, she’s grown up knowing that lawyers have to weave between secular, traditional, colonial, and religious legal systems. Where another woman might have tried to push the women out of purdah, Perveen understands the widows’ boundaries and acts as a fierce advocate for them as the police blunder their way through the murder investigation.

The mystery and Perveen are wonderful, but what I liked most about The Widows of Malabar Hill was the way it took me back to the Bombay of 1921. This book brings a world back to life, full of sights and smells (there are a lot of meals in this book that made me want to rush to the nearest Indian restaurant). This book will be a great read for people who want to be transported while they try to out-investigate a mystery novel’s protagonist.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 January 2018.

The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer

34103858When I was young enough that my mother still made me go to church, I was taught the Lutheran version of salvation. I prefer to say it in Latin—sola fides sufficitmostly because I’m a word nerd and because I like to sound smart. The idea of sola fide (“faith alone”) is a Reformation idea that believers will go to heaven simply because they have faith. Their faith would presumably lead them to do good works and generally be good people. This is different from the medieval Catholic doctrine that it was faith and good works that would get a believer into heaven. This issue of salvation is at the heart of Ian Mortimer’s slightly preachy novel, The Outcasts of Time.

John of Wrayment wants to be a good man and wants to get into heaven, but almost all of his attempts to do good go terribly awry. In other circumstances, John might have had a lifetime to try to do and be good. Unfortunately, John is alive in 1348, when the Bubonic Plague arrived in England. People are dying left and right. Trying to nurse people would be almost certainly fatal and yet, one day, John talks his brother into helping an infant that they found with its plague-dead parents. This good act ends up infecting them and others with the plague. The Outcasts of Time would have been a very short book if John hadn’t had a little bit of supernatural intervention at this point. A voice that might either be heavenly or infernal offers him and his brother the options of living out the last six days of their life with their families (and infecting them with the plague) or living each of those days at 99-year intervals. John takes the chance because he thinks he might have new opportunities to do good. His brother goes along, reluctantly, to stay with his naïve younger brother.

John and William then jump, every morning, from 1348 to 1447, 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843, and 1942. John’s bad luck apparently comes with him because his attempted good works keep going wrong. These attempts keep the plot going, but they were slightly less interesting to me than the conversations John would have with the descendants of people he knew in the Moreton (later Moretonhampstead) area about fate, good works, futility, human nature, faith, and other topics. Ideas of salvation change with England’s history, especially after the Protestant Reformation hits. The evolution of religion (ha!) deeply troubles John and he’s more than willing to argue about the superiority of his original faith for several of his last days—at least until the weight of history starts to press down on him and make him wonder about the difference between what he was taught and what he witnesses.

The Outcasts of Time has a facile ending that I didn’t like. But the ending, not to say too much about it, does provide a sense of hope that does a lot to relieve the sense of hopelessness that pervades the book as John often makes things worse rather than better. The Outcasts of Time wears its message boldly on its sleeve. Readers who want more subtlety will probably want to avoid this. Readers who like books that give them food for thought about fate or the idea that humans either improve or fail to improve over time, however, will enjoy The Outcasts of Time. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.


Red Sky at Noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

35407600It’s a shame that this book is the conclusion to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Russian trilogy. Red Sky at Noon, while it has an interesting premise, is laden with a ludicrous romance plot and ahistorical scenes featuring Josef Stalin and Svetlana Stalina that made it hard for me to take the book seriously. I was so excited about this book since I’m a sucker for books about the Red Army during World War II and novels set in Russia before the end of the world in general. If this book had left out the subplots and focused on its protagonist, Benya Golden, I think it would have been an excellent read. Instead, it’s a melodramatic mess.

Benya Golden, like many people sent to the gulag during the purges of the 1930s, has only one option to rejoin Soviet society. He must volunteer for a prisoner battalion. As a shtrafniki, Benya has to serve in whatever function the Red Army gives him and survive being wounded. Only then will he “redeem” himself. Benya is fortunate in that he’s not just sent to the infantry. Instead, he’s turned into a cavalryman, trained by Don Cossack prisoners and a purged general. After receiving more training than many of the Red Army’s draftees and volunteers, Benya is sent to Ukraine in the days before the Battle of Stalingrad. He has a greater chance of dying, given the way the high command threw their men against the Nazis. I lost count of how many times Benya almost got killed.

Soviet cavalry (Image via Gettyimages)

The chapters with Benya just trying to survive at the best parts of Red Sky at Noon. Unfortunately, the good parts are mixed in with a far-fetched romance plot in which Benya falls in instant love with an Italian nurse who instantly falls in love with him. While armies are raging across Ukraine, they somehow find time to dally. And then, even worse, there are chapters centered on Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, that I just couldn’t believe. I hate it when fiction creates dialog and scenes for actual historical figures that can’t be supported by actual history.

I was very disappointed by Red Sky at Noon. It tried to do too many things that I just found ridiculous. If you choose to read this, skip the Svetlana sections entirely. The book works just fine without them.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

19322250Personhood is complicated. There is the person we present to our family, who might be the same as the person we present to our friends, who is definitely no the person we present to our bosses. Behind all those people is the person we are to ourselves. But what if, that person underneath hates themselves? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, one might think that surviving a Japanese POW camp in the Thai jungle would be conflict enough. Instead, many of the characters torment themselves with wondering if they’re good or bad people. This novel richly deserves all the accolades it has won because it provides so much food for thought about who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are.

Everyone thinks Dorrigo Evans is a hero, except Dorrigo himself. He doesn’t like who he is. He’s not affectionate with his children. He cheats on his wife. He’s not a brilliant surgeon. But everyone outside his family considers him a hero because he helped his men when they were kept in a Japanese POW camp for years. Dorrigo was the ranking officer and only qualified doctor. In harrowing circumstances, he tried to keep as many of his men alive for as long as possible. Dorrigo tortures himself by seeking happiness at the same time he feels he doesn’t deserve it.

Meanwhile, Dorrigo is contrasted with two of his guards. There is the Japanese colonel who ordered the men to work without rest, food, or medicine while ordering beatings for real and imagined faults. Yet, after the war, Nakamura tells himself over and over that he was a devoted subject of the Emperor, who only did what was necessary for his country. Then there is the Korean guard who carried out Nakamura’s sadistic orders. This guard does not lie to himself, as such. Instead, Choi Sang-min tells himself:

For when he was a guard, he lived like an animal, he behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be. (290*)

It’s hard to say who is right, if anyone is actually right. By the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I think we could say that all versions of a person are real. The problems arise when those versions are out of harmony with each other.

Three Australian POWs who were forced to build the Burma-Thailand Railway by their Japanese captors.
(Image via Australia War Memorial)

The tension between who these men think they are and who they present to the rest of the world is brilliantly illustrated by Dorrigo and Nakamura’s love of poetry. Throughout his life, Dorrigo reads and recites poetry. The words help him express, at least to himself, his complicated emotional life. Nakamura, on the other hand, uses poetry to reassure himself that he is not a barbarian. In addition to this use of poetry, the haiku at the beginning of each section serve as knotty kōan to think about while we chew over the book and its subtext. They don’t immediately make sense but, once I passed each section, the haiku meaning unfolded so that I could feel a bit of the love of poetry Dorrigo and Nakamura have. And, if I’m honest with myself in a way neither of these characters are, understanding the haiku makes me feel very smart.

I finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday and I’m still thinking about it. Like all great books, it has so much to say that I’m not done with it even though I’ve finished the last page. This book covers the nature of heroism, the will to survive, the banality of life after great hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, the varieties of love, and so much more. This book pummeled me in the best way. This review barely scratches the surface of the book. I want to recommend it to a ton of readers so that I have someone to share my pummeling with.

* Quote is from the 2013 trade paperback by Vintage International.

The Coroner’s Daughter, by Andrew Hughes

32191820Andrew Hughes’ The Coroner’s Daughter is an entertaining book about a girl who refuses to stay put or stop asking questions. Abigail Lawless, unlike many other girls in early nineteenth century Dublin, was indulged by her coroner father, so she never “learned her place.” It’s a good thing she didn’t, because then the deaths of an infant, his mother, and several others would have remained a mystery.

In the Dublin of 1816, a ruling of death by suicide not only meant that cause of death might not be determined but also that the body could not be buried in consecrated ground. I bring this up because it encapsulates the major conflict in this book of science and rationality against religious fundamentalism. Abigail and her father get caught in the middle because they have to tread lightly between a powerful religious cadre, the status quo, and their determination to see justice done and truth outed.

I enjoyed the irrepressible Abigail a lot, but I found myself disappointed by the conclusion to The Coroner’s Daughter. At the risk of saying too much, I think the solution to the mystery was too muddled and too much of a commentary on the conflict between religion and science. When I thought the solution was a matter of human failings, I was much more engaged in the story. That said, Abigail makes up for a lot on this book and I’m glad that the coda at the end leaves an opening for a sequel.

Beloved Poison, by E.S. Thomson

28933550E.S. Thomson’s Beloved Poison is a slow burn of a mystery, at least until a third of the way through and someone finally gets murdered. Then the corpses proliferate and our protagonist gets followed by thugs and it’s clear we’re finally off to the races. In addition to the twisty mystery, Beloved Poison offers a look inside a London hospital in 1846, a time when the old guard surgeons (with coats so stiff with blood they could stand on their own) were starting to lose ground to up-and-comers who talked about radical notions like antisepsis.

St. Saviour’s Hospital is almost in worse shape than many of the Londoners who come there for treatment. The hospital governors have made a deal to sell the land to a railway company and rebuild elsewhere. Jem Flockhart, our protagonist, is not happy about this. Jem grew up in the hospital, working for her apothecary father, and does not want to start over somewhere else. (Jem is disguised as a man so that she can work. This isn’t a spoiler since Jem’s biological sex is revealed fairly early in the book.) She’s even more annoyed when she has to share space with Will Quartermain, the young architect who’s been hired to relocate the bodies in St. Saviour’s cemetery.

In the first third of Beloved Poison, we learn a lot about Dr. Bain and why several people at the hospital might want to kill him. He’s the first victim in this book, but only because Jem and Will discovered six strange, witchy paper coffins with dolls behind a decaying wall in the hospital chapel. Jem has an inquiring mind and she immediately starts to ask questions about where the dolls came from. Unfortunately, the dolls turn out to be the tip of a gristly iceberg. The mystery is baffling—both to Jem and Will, and to me—and it takes a lot of investigating, interviewing, and ratiocinating to get to the bottom of everything.

I really liked Jem. Her gender and sexuality are fascinating. She can’t fully be a Victorian man (because so many of them expect to spend time at the local brothels), but she can’t become a woman because she has neither the interest or the talent for it. Jem’s outsider status gives her a critical eye for how men and women relate to each other in her narrow, hierarchical world. The fact that she’s in love with the top surgeon’s daughter is a tantalizing addition to the story.

Between the setting and the unusual mystery, I was quite entertained by Beloved Poison. It could have used a bit more editing, I think, to smooth the rough transitions and develop the ending a bit more. I feel that the characters and their backstories threatened (often) to become more engrossing than the actual mystery. Beloved Poison could easily have become a sprawling, Dickensian slice-of-life bildungsroman—and I think I would have loved the book even more for it.

The Cure for Dreaming, by Cat Winters

20702018It’s hard to find a father more disappointed in his child than Dr. Mead is in his daughter—or a father for whom I have so little sympathy about it. Olivia Mead is a burgeoning suffragist when we meet her at the beginning of Cat Winters’ The Cure for Dreaming. All she wants is to be heard, but all her father wants is for to be quiet, biddable, and domestic. The fact that Dr. Mead is willing to hire a hypnotist to remove Olivia’s “rough edges” escalates their domestic drama into a disturbing battle of wills.

The Cure for Dreaming opens with a scene that establishes just how susceptible Olivia is to hypnotism. Later, she learns that the hypnotist, Henri Reverie, actually stood on her during the act. It doesn’t take much to put Olivia under. She’s so tightly wound up most of the time that even the suggestion of relaxing is a relief. Olivia’s troubles really begin after her father finds out that she attended a suffragist rally. Once that news leaks out, Dr. Mead hires Reverie to “treat” Olivia. After hypnosis, Olivia starts to see strange things. Men look like vampires. Some women look like ghosts. It’s even harder for Olivia to keep her mouth shut about the injustices that she sees all around. And worse, she can only say “All is well” when she’s angry.

The longer I read, the more disturbed I was. Both her father and Henri play with Olivia’s mind and completely ignore her wishes. Henri is worse, I think, because he’s presented as a savior for quite a lot of this book (so that he would be a palatable love interest, I think). But he keeps doing what he thinks is “best” when he hypnotizes Olivia time and again. Olivia is batted back and forth between two men who think they know what’s “best;” they constantly override her agency and it bothered the hell out of me.

What I liked most was the way Olivia fought against her fetters throughout The Cure for Dreaming, even if she was rarely successful. I also enjoyed that the action played out against early suffragist agitation in Portland, Oregon. But I don’t know that I like this enough to make up for the problems with consent in the book.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

2227528The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, didn’t quite make sense to me until I read the brief note at the end. This note pointed out that several of the “sections” of The Plague of Doves had been previously published as short stories. When I looked back on what I read as a series of linked stories, I had to marvel at the way a story and a theme of disillusionment coalesced out of the various characters’ narratives. Motifs suddenly became clues about the central mysteries of the collection. The achronological organization began to feel like I was interviewing potential witnesses and suspects of the crimes committed on a North Dakotan Ojibwa-Metis-Michif reservation over generations. By the end, I felt that I knew more about these characters than, perhaps, they meant to reveal, as though I really was an investigator or oral historian.

The Plague of Doves covers more than 100 years of history, but it opens near the end of that span. Evelina shares her grandfathers retelling of the day he was almost hanged by a posse of white men. The posse suspected Mooshum and three other Native Americans he was with of killing a white family (excluding one infant survivor). Despite token resistance by white law enforcement, Mooshum’s friends are lynched. The lynching and the murders that precipitated it form a core for several of the narrators to hang their own stories on. With each new narrator, whether directly connected to those killings or not, we learn more about the lynching, the murders, and a lot of things that happened since.

Because some of the sections are only tangentially related to the killings, I looked for something to connect all the sections. Partway through The Plague of Doves, I think I spotted it: disillusionment. Over and over in this novel, I watched characters (who are on the pragmatic side, for the most part) realize that love, law, faith, and other abstract concepts might let them down. That said, this is not a hopeless book. Rather, I read this book as a series of awakenings as characters realized that what they thought was important was either more complicated or just figments of their imaginations. The characters sometimes break, but I sense that they become stronger for their mental ordeals.

The Plague of Doves is a complex piece of fiction that offers several meals’ worth food for through. Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like my brain has been performing marathons as I’ve tried to work out what this book is all about. This brief review doesn’t even come close to covering it all.