historical fiction · mystery · review

The Collector’s Apprentice, by B.A. Shapiro

38746165In The Collector’s Apprentice, B.A. Shapiro continues her series of standalone novels of fictionalized art history. This novel draws its inspiration from the life and work of art collector Alfred Barnes, though it puts the focus on the woman modelled on Barnes’ assistant. It also condenses and sensationalizes events to deliver a thrilling story of murder, inheritance, and the Post-Impressionist revolution.

The Collector’s Apprentice covers three periods in the life of Paulien Mertens, alias Vivienne Gregsby. In 1929, she is on trial for the murder of her mentor and employer, Dr. Edwin Bradley. In 1922, she is on the streets of Paris, trying to make a living after being cast out by her family. In 1920, she is falling in love in London with a man who we learn, over the course of the novel, is responsible for ruining her life.

All Paulien/Vivienne wanted was to run a museum. As the daughter of a Belgian industrialist who dared to go against general tastes to collect Post-Impressionist works of art, Paulien dreams of creating her own museum. She is deeply in love with the emotional expressiveness of the new art coming out of France, with its bold colors and unorthodox primitiveness. But after getting engaged to a conman who destroyed the finances of dozens (and drove one man to suicide), no one will hire Paulien and her family has kicked her out. It’s only after she changes her name and is hired to translate for American art collector Bradley that she starts to rise again. The chapters set in 1929 and the reappearance of Paulien’s fiancé, George, make it clear that there are more bumps in the road head.

Le bonheur de vivre, by Matisse, is frequently referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

The Collector’s Apprentice is as much in love with Post-Impressionism as Paulien is. There are numerous scenes in which Paulien gets to mingle with the brightest lights in Paris. She has dinner at Gertrude Stein‘s house. She swoons for Henri Matisse. She gets to scour Paris for the latest, most daring paintings and sculptures. This book is so full of references to art and artists that readers who aren’t familiar with the Post-Impressionists will want to run to Wikipedia to get caught up. Even readers who are familiar with the art will probably want to refresh their memories. The descriptions of the works of art and their meaning are very evocative, but mere words can’t really capture the colors and sense of movement in a painting like Dance II.

On the other hand, it takes a while for the cat-and-mouse game to steal the show. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I understood why George kept showing up. I kept wanting to yell at Paulien for the way she keeps letting him manipulate her or her first feeble attempts to use him. But once the plot moves away from the art world and Paulien’s battles of will with her mentor and the mystery takes over, I loved reading about the twists and turns Paulien and George’s relationship.

The Collector’s Apprentice has much to recommend itself to readers, especially readers who also enjoy art. Paulien’s journey from naif to connoisseur and (possibly) con artist is a delight to watch. The best parts, for me, were at the end, when Paulien is at her greatest peril. I enjoyed the ekphrastic sections, but the thriller/mystery plot hooked me completely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

literary fiction · mystery · review

The Witch Elm, by Tana French

39720991About a third of the way through The Witch Elm, by Tana French, I started to wonder when the book would get good. I was interested, but not totally hooked. Now that I’ve finished the book, I will never doubt French again. The first third of the novel sets the stage for the beautifully written parallels and ethical dilemmas of the second two-thirds of the book by presenting a thorough psychological portrait of protagonist Toby Hennessy. In the opening chapters of The Witch Elm, Toby receives an awful lesson in how privileged his life as a charming, middle class, white heterosexual man has been. Over and over, privilege and its benefits are thrown into sharp relief as Toby’s life is turned upside down and inside out.

There are two worst nights of Toby’s life. Both of them start out the same way, with Toby having a good time with friends and drinks. Both of them end with a crime that changes his life. The crime that occurs at the beginning of The Witch Elm sees Toby badly beaten in his Dublin apartment by a pair of thieves. He suffers from slurred speech and can’t always find the right words. He can’t multitask any more. He’s got weakness on his left side. Perhaps worst of all, his self-confidence (the epitome of his sense of self) is completely destroyed. When Toby relocates to the suburbs to help care for his terminally ill uncle and to recuperate himself, his nephew finds evidence of the other crime: a human skull in the 200-year-old wych elm in the garden of the Hennessey family’s Ivy House.

The skull turns out to be part of the remains of a teenaged boy who everyone thought had committed suicide ten years ago. The investigation into the boy, Dominic’s, murder, however, kicks up a bunch of sinister gaps in Toby’s memory. Toby remembers Dominic as kind of a mate and basically a “good guy.” Toby can’t remember much about why someone would want to kill Dominic, but his cousins remember Dominic as a sadistic, relentless bully. The more Toby learns, the more he starts to wonder if his habit of forgetting his own bad behavior might be concealing something horrible. His inability to remember what may have happened ten years ago torments him, so much so that he starts to wonder if he is the killer. And yet, things don’t quite add up—at least until the end of the book when everything wraps up in a masterful and deeply satisfying conclusion.

A wych elm in Austria
(Image via Wikicommons)

The mystery at the heart of The Witch Elms is delightfully plotted out. I loved the way it all played out because of the ethical complications. But the best part of The Witch Elm, I think, is the way that it exposes how we as a society bestow the privilege of being believed on certain people and withhold it from others. For some reason, white, middle class, teenaged boys (especially upper class white boys) who have a decent reputation are believed, while teenaged girls of whatever ethnicity or reputation are not believed. If girls (or women or LGBT+ people or people of color) accuse the privileged, they are told that “boys will be boys” or that they’re making things up. Toby is shown this over and over, slowly realizing how damaging it is to a person’s self-worth to be disbelieved on top of being bullied. There were a few points when I wanted to reach into the book and shake Toby until his teeth rattled because he just does not get it, not until he finally sees the full picture. The passages when he finally does it get it are simultaneously satisfying and disheartening because they contain so much truth.

There is plenty of fodder for discussion for book groups in The Witch Elm. In addition to fueling conversation about privilege and how it protects predators, readers will be left with questions about how malleable our memory is, whether or not its justifiable to take justice into one’s hands when official channels are not available, and how much people will sacrifice for their loved ones. The thematic parallels that repeatedly echo questions about privilege, memory, and the rest never bog down the plot (which gets very tense more than a few times), and give this book a lot of substance in addition to its cracking mystery.

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

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Way of All Flesh, by Ambrose Parry

38114460I prefer to read about new detectives rather than the polished kind of the classic mysteries, most of the time. I tend to find them more believable because they make mistakes and—let me be honest—because I stand a chance at solving the case before they do. But in Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, one our two amateur detectives makes dangerous mistakes while he and his ad hoc partner attempt to solve the murders of a series of poor women in 1847 Edinburgh. The tension in this book comes not just from the case but also from wondering if one of the protagonists will get himself killed before resolving the matter.

We meet one of our protagonists on one of the worst nights of his life. Will Raven, a medical student, has just discovered the dead body of the woman he loved. Fearing that he will be blamed for the death, he runs…only to run into a pair of enforcers who work for the loan shark he just borrowed a large sum. It’s a miracle that he remains in one piece long enough to make it to the first day of his apprenticeship with the famous obstetrician, Sir James Young Simpson. (Renowned surgeon James Syme also appears in this book.) It’s at Simpson’s house that we meet our second protagonist, Sarah Fisher, who works there as a housemaid and lady’s maid to Simpson’s sister-in-law. While Will has a shot at becoming a wealthy doctor if he applies himself, Sarah’s intelligence and gleaned medical knowledge are almost certain to go to waste because of her gender.

Will and Sarah get off on the wrong foot almost immediately and engage in an unwitting battle of wills while more dead women are discovered around Edinburgh. Because the women are sex workers or housemaids, they don’t receive much attention from the law. Instead, the law is more interested in finding out how an infant’s leg (without the rest of the body) come to be found on a city street. Will’s questions turn up clues that point towards a rogue abortionist (though it takes Will a painfully long time to put the pieces together). It also takes him a distressingly long time to put aside his prejudices and join forces with Sarah to stop the murders.

Memorial plague to Sir James Simpson in St. Giles, Edinburgh (Image via Wikicommons)

The mystery in The Way of All Flesh meanders, mostly because Will and Sarah are amateurs and have day jobs that prevent them from working ’round the clock on the case. The villain is an absolute fiend, which adds spice to the mystery plot. But what interested me more was the medical history that is liberally folded into the story. Between Simpson’s experiments with chloroform—a godsend for laboring women—and the terrifying practice of gynaecology and obstetrics in the 1847s, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. I’m a ghoul for medical history and The Way of All Flesh was catnip for me. Readers with a similar interest will probably enjoy this book, if they can get over Will’s moments of righteous temper. Readers who don’t have a strong stomach might want to skip sections if they are otherwise invested in the mystery.

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

contemporary fantasy · mystery · review

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

I’m a little confused about the title of this book. Sometimes I see it listed as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and other times as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. I’ll be using the latter title, since that’s what’s on the ARC I got from Edelweiss.

36337550It’s hard to say who was more confused at the beginning of The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton: me or the protagonist. The protagonist’s awareness bursts to life as he’s being chased through the woods, shouting the name “Anna.” This isn’t unusual in fiction. What is unusual is the fact that the protagonist doesn’t recognize his hands and can’t remember his own name. As the protagonist slowly puts the pieces together, we learn that he is under a strange set of orders. Our protagonist will wake up in a set of different hosts and must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle—or else he will lose all his new memories and have to start all over again from square one. Oh, and when he wakes in the morning, Evelyn hasn’t been murdered yet.

Everything takes place at Blackheath, a mouldering country house somewhere in England. We’re not sure when, but there are no cellphones or laptops. There are horse-drawn carriages and oil lamps, and references to a war. On the day that Evelyn will be murdered, her parents have assembled a shady cast of guests for a ball. No one particularly wants to be there, but they’ve gotten together because of a tangled web of scheming and blackmail. Everything has something to hide and a single 24-hour period, no matter how often our protagonist relives it, doesn’t seem like enough to gather everyone’s secrets and make sense of it all.

Our protagonist has to make a lot of impossible choices over the course of the novel. How does he save Evelyn? Can he save Evelyn? How does he save Anna and get them both out of their waking nightmare? What lengths is he willing to go to in order to save the people he wants to save? The ground is always shifting underneath him as he finds out who is real enemies are and what secrets people are hiding. Meanwhile, the longer he stays at Blackheath, bouncing from host to host, the more he starts to lose himself to the personalities of the people he inhabits. If he goes on much longer at Blackheath, he’s in danger of losing himself entirely. If that happens, Evelyn’s murder will go on unsolved and Anna will also be lost forever.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is one of the most fiendishly complicated and original mysteries I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. I just had to know what happened to the protagonist and Anna and the huge cast of characters. My feverish reading was rewarded by a mystery that kept getting deeper with every chapter, revelations that turned friends into enemies and back again, and a heroic story of a man struggling against an impossible set of circumstances.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 18 September 2018.

mystery · review

Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry

27246107Flynn Berry’s lightning fast and devastating novel, Under the Harrow, begins with Nora walking into the most horrific scene that anyone can blunder into. Nora is planning to spend the weekend at her sister’s house, only to walk in to find that her sister has been brutally murdered. The book never lets up after this shocking discovery and we ride along as a grief-stricken Nora tries to find out who did it.

Nora is, obviously, a wreck when the police start to ask her questions. But she is able to give the police a lead or two. She tells the lead detective about Rachel’s assault as a teenager and how they used to try to find out who did it. Maybe that man came back, she suggests. But then, Nora also sees red flags everywhere. While the police follow the evidence, Nora follows hunches and bits of memory. She asks the police to look into a local man she finds creepy. She leads them to a stalker’s hideout near Rachel’s house.

As she investigates on her own, Nora finds out that she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought she did. This is a brief book, but it is absolutely jam-packed with red herrings and twists. It’s truly astonishing how much Berry packs into this story. Not only is this book crammed with plot, but it’s also deft in its portrayal of the way grief can derail someone’s mind. Nora makes some bad decisions that are hard to witness; I wanted to yell into the book at her more than once. That said, Nora’s grief also makes her determined to make sure her sister’s killer is caught even when the police are ready to give up and wait for new evidence.

It’s not unusual for detectives to be under some kind of emotional duress in fiction. They might have a drinking problem or family pressures that keep them from being totally focused on the case. Some, like Jo Nesbø‘s Harry Hole, have emotional and physical baggage. But I’ve never see a mystery from the perspective of the relative of a murder victim. That perspective makes Under the Harrow one of the most effective murder tales I’ve ever encountered.

literary fiction · mystery · review

Ohio, by Stephen Markley

Trigger warning for rape.

36373372Stephen Markley’s Ohio is a novel grows ever more devastating the deeper we get into this grim, profound portrait of a group of friends, enemies, victims, and bullies. It circles back and forth from around the turn of the millennium to 2013, on a night when several characters find themselves back in New Canaan. The more we read, the more we learn what terrible deeds are afoot on that night and why those deeds might (or might not) be justified.

At first, that night seems ordinary apart from the fact that people who thought they fled New Canaan find themselves back in the former steel town. These days, New Canaan has little to offer anyone. The army is a way out for some. Drugs are an easier, more likely option for those who remain. Bill Ashcraft, the lone liberal of New Canaan, is back in town because he’s been hired to do a secret errand for an old flame. Once in town, he quickly gets drunk and high and takes us on a bleary tour of his memories. Then we move on to Stacey Moore, who has come back because the mother of her long lost love has asked Stacey for a favor. After Stacey tells her stories, we meet Danny Eaton, a wounded veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Danny’s quiet goodness and sense of duty is contrasted with Bill’s strident arguments against the war. Lastly (and most affectingly), we see Tina Ross. This night belongs to Tina—but I can’t say too much, lest I ruin the slow boiling twists of Ohio.

Each section ends with a scene that shows us what’s going on that night. It isn’t until the last section, narrated by Tina, that we see the whole picture. Along the way, there are hints about the guilt that many of the characters are wrestling with and about the crimes that were committed during high school that still need justice or revenge. Ohio rewards readers who pay attention. All of the details are germane. New Canaan’s classes of 2003 and 2004 are a tangled web that cannot be understood without following our four narrators down the roads of the old town. I loved picking it all apart.

I wasn’t sure about Ohio when I started it. Spending time with Bill was rough because, despite his attempts to do some good in the world, he mostly seems to be drunkenly tilting at windmills. He’s also so self-absorbed that he didn’t realize how awful some of his classmates are—especially the villainous Kaylyn Lynn and Todd Beaufort. Once the perspective shifted to other characters, I fell headlong into the narrative. I had enormous sympathy for Stacey, Danny, and Tina. Some readers might struggle with the multiple time lines. There are places where time seems particularly fluid. But this kind of achronological storytelling is catnip for me. Ohio takes the story of high school bullies and their victims and transforms it into one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. It is masterly in its construction and the fully realized portraits of its characters. This book is a dark gem.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

887333In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler takes us back to 1506, the year of a bloody massacre of Jews in the Portuguese capitol, and gives us a brutal murder and conspiracy among the forcibly converted “New Christians” of the city. Berekiah Zarco and his uncle, Abraham, are defiantly Jewish Kabbalists at a time when it was extremely dangerous to be so. Still, they keep up appearances as Christians while Abraham smuggles religious and philosophical texts out of the country to safer places. But then forces conspire to destroy their way of life.

Berekiah is a passionate man. He loves his family. He revels in the spiritual knowledge and strength he has as his Kabbalist uncle’s apprentice. He also feels constantly simmering fury at the Old Christians who have forced the Jews underground. But then, on April 19, 1506, a massacre erupts as Old Christians violently attack Jews and converts, blaming them for the ongoing drought and an outbreak of plague. Berekiah had been sent out of the city on an errand only to return to a scene straight out of hell. Jews are in hiding while Christians roam the streets looking for victims. When he does reach home, he finds his uncle murdered in their cellar with an unknown woman. Another murder among all the other murders isn’t strange, sadly, but there is other evidence that Abraham and the woman were not random victims.

Undated German woodcut of the Lisbon massacre (Image via Wikicommons)

Berekiah doesn’t wait for the violence to die down before he leaps into action. He hunts down clues while also trying to find the missing members of his family, who scattered when the mob roared through. The clues point Berekiah to one of the men in Abraham’s “threshing group,” a group of Kabbalist seekers in the secret Jewish community. The more Berekiah dies, the more he realizes that he didn’t know much about Abraham’s smuggling or what secrets the man held.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon recreates the city and the lives of the Jews and converts who tried to make a home there. I will admit that I was skeptical of Berekiah and his friend, Farid’s, forensic abilities and a few anachronisms. This and a few odd details about Berekiah’s sexuality where the only problems I had with the book. But these are minor quibbles against the vibrancy of the book’s setting and the Gordian tangles of the plot. I was hooked right from the beginning, when Berekiah’s autobiography is found in a hidden trove of documents in an ancient house in Istanbul. Zimler poured historical research into the story without bogging down the full tilt plot. This book will be a great read for historical fiction buffs (so long as they have a strong stomach).