The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

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The Gargoyle Hunters

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

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

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

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

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

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

The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

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The Wages of Sin

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

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

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

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

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

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

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The Princess Bride

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

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

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

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

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler

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Blitzed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy in the Morning, by P.G. Wodehouse

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Joy in the Morning

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

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

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

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

 

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

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The Lost Book of the Grail

Lovett continues his theme of literary mysteries in The Lost Book of the Grail. Previous books have dealt with lost Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This time, Lovett explores new metafictional heights in the most literary grail quest I’ve ever encountered. The Lost Book of the Grail tells the story of Arthur Prescott’s meticulous progress through the library of Barchester Cathedral’s library to find any clues that would prove his grandfather correct: that the holy grail is somewhere in Barchester. Along the way, he has help from a talkative American digitizer and his fellow bibliophiles.

The Lost Book of the Grail opens with a surprising bit of action. One night in 1941, German bombers—lost on the way to London—dropped bombs on Barchester Cathedral. (Fellow readers might recognize the name Barchester from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire novels.) A young choir boy is pressed into service to help rescue books from the cathedral library before they’re destroyed. After rescuing the books, he spots a mysterious man stealing one of them. We then jump ahead to 2016, where Arthur Prescott is working on a guidebook to the cathedral. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on. In reality he’s seeking any information about St. Ewolda, the local Saxon saint, and trying to find more evidence that the holy grail might have made it to Barchester in the early middle ages. His grandfather earnestly believed that the grail had somehow come to their out of the way county before disappearing from the historical record.

This introduction might make the book sound like another The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a lot slower and a lot funnier than Dan Brown’s novel. Arthur is the consummate luddite. He loathes the modern era and prefers to spend this time in the cathedral library, reading medieval Latin. He, at first, considers the presence of Bethany an intrusion of the worst kind. She’s there to digitize the manuscripts and books in the library at the behest of an American billionaire. She’s very talkative and loves taking tangents—but she can also argue Arthur to a standstill, which he enjoys in spite of himself. Just reading their dialog is delightful.

While Arthur and Bethany work their way through the historical clues, we get brief scenes from previous centuries that let us know that we’re on the right track. Centuries ago, a monk from Glastonbury asked the monks at St. Ewolda’s to hide a treasure. Since that time, one guardian has kept the secret safe from vikings, Henry VIII’s monastery breakers, and Roundheads. Now the big danger is lack of funds for restoring a cathedral that’s starting to fall apart. The race to find something to save the cathedral before the library is sold off provides a bit of tension among all the page turning.

If you’re the sort of person who gets excited about research, The Lost Book of the Grail will be absolute catnip. If you’re the sort of person who loves characters who bicker before and after they realize they love each other, you’ll have a good time with this book. If you’re a little squeamish about religion, well, this book will still be pretty enjoyable.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss and NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

An Almond for a Parrot, by Wray Delaney

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An Almond for a Parrot

Wray Delaney has concocted a delightfully scandalous historical fantasy in An Almond for a Parrot. In this wild tale, Tully Truegood tells us about her strange life—from her less than auspicious beginnings on London’s Milk Street as the daughter of a drunkard to the reason she is sitting in prison about to face trial for murder. Along the way there are chases, kidnappings, salacious details about life in a brothel, true love, ghosts, and magic.

I had no idea what I was in for when I started reading An Almond for a Parrot. The beginning of the book introduces us to Tully, who is pregnant and accused of murder, before taking us back to her tough life on Milk Street. Tully—who introduces many chapters with recipes—was mostly brought up by her drunken father’s cook before he noticed her when she turned 12. Being noticed by her father was not a good thing. Before she knew it, she was married off to a boy scarcely older than she was in a half-cocked plan to net her father some money. Tully’s next turning point is when she meets her father’s second wife (another half-cocked plan) and later learns that the woman is a madam.

As if all this weren’t enough for one life, Tully also sees ghosts and can make them appear to other people. Her growing abilities are a constant sub-plot running through the book. After she makes her escape from her father’s house, Tully is taken in by her ersatz step-mother and her conjuring partner—which leads to a dual career as prostitute and magician (though she and the conjurer never use that title for themselves). Tully is often a terrible prostitute. Not because she hates the work. (She is rather fond of the act.) The problem is that Tully keeps falling in love with her clients. Before the plot gets more sinister, the first half of the book is wryly funny.

I would have thought combining an already exciting plot with a weirder one would have overstuffed this novel, but it doesn’t, for some reason. It just added spice to the novel. If nothing else, the magical elements made for a thrilling (if slightly too-convenient) ending. After a couple of rough readsAn Almond for a Parrot was a very enjoyable read. Though it delves into some dark topics, it was original, daring, and quite fun. I look forward to whatever Wray Delaney comes up with next.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd

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A Man of Genius

I was immediately intrigued by the description of A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd: Gothic novelist Ann St. Clair becomes involved in her own Gothic romance with a mad genius that ends in violence. Even if it weren’t set mostly in nineteenth century Venice, I would have picked it up. Unfortunately, the execution of Ann’s story leaves much to be desired. The pacing is off for the first third. Todd switches between different characters’ perspectives at odd moments and for no discernible reason. And, as if this weren’t enough flaws for one book, the loathed the way the various Gothic-inspired mysteries were resolved. I only finished it because I wanted to know the answers to those mysteries.

The first third of A Man of Genius is any self-respecting woman’s nightmare. Ann St. Clair is a successful, though not very talented, scribbler of Gothic mysteries. She is contentedly independent when she meets Robert James. James once wrote a fragment of an epic poem that has made him sort of famous. Now his “career” consists of rambling about his big ideas to a group of followers and fellow artists. Ann falls in love with him and attaches herself to him as much as he will allow. Ann shares her miseries while trying to explain why James is a genius and why she loves him, sounding much like any person who falls in love with an awful human being and wants to justify their feelings.

It’s clear that James is more disturbed than enlightened, though Ann keeps hoping that he will find a way to finish his magnum opus. When James decides to leave London for somewhere sunny, Ann packs up her life and follows him south. They eventually settle in Venice. For me, this is where A Man of Genius started to get good. In Venice, worried about money, Ann strikes off and lands in good company. She finds work helping an aristocratic Venetian practice her English. Working in the city provides an escape from her self-appointed task as James’ caretaker—and a relief from my having to read about the woes of a man who clearly needed psychotropic medication.

The Venetian section is also where the Gothic elements of the novel start to appear. James turns violent and unhinged. A man appears to be following Ann around Venice. There are questions about James’ past and political activities. These don’t reach a boil until much later. Until they did, I enjoyed wandering around post-Napoleonic Venice with Ann as she learned to rediscover herself as an independent woman.

In the last third, events pick up the pace, the mysteries deepened, and I found myself in yet another part of the book that didn’t gel with the other parts. A Man of Genius really did feel like three fragments glued into one novel. Even the writing style shifts, from literary vignettes and snippets to more traditional prose. I’ve often seen novels described in reviews as uneven and this book is a textbook example of that criticism. I suspect that the main problem is Todd just tried to stuff too much in. If the book had just been a Gothic pastiche or a literary psychological thriller, A Man of Genius would have worked much better. As it is, this book is a mess.

Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Even though they didn’t take very long to read, the stories in Mariana Enríquez’ collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, are going to stay in my brain for a while. (In fact, returning to read a few more chapters of War and Peace turned out to be a pleasant mental palate cleanser.) The stories are set in Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and other cities in Argentina between the late 1980s and now. In addition to sharing a feeling of creeping horror, the stories are connected by the way the characters are forced to confront the unhealed wounds of the past that are just waiting to reopen as soon as they are poked.

In the 1970s, Argentina was torn apart by the Dirty War, a bloody conflict in which the state terrorized its citizens in the name of anti-Communism and unity. Thousands of people were “disappeared.” The Dirty War is not directly referenced in Enríquez collection. Instead, Enríquez has transformed this trauma into semi or fully supernatural horrors that her protagonists stumble into when they try to right a wrong or stand up for themselves. In one story, “Under the Black Water,” a severely polluted river that has become a dumping ground for victims of police violence becomes a source of a zombie cult. In others, “Adela’s House” and “An Invocation of the Big-Earred Runt,” past crimes reach out from the past to claim new victims. It’s clear that nothing has healed.

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire is also a close examination of women’s lives in Argentina. In many of the stories, the female characters are threatened by men. The threats are either of potential violence but, more often, of gaslighting. Over and over, the women in these stories are told that what they’ve seen is not real and that they should give up their “delusions.” In the final story, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women begin to destroy themselves before their men can do it. This story is the one that will probably stick with me the longest because it is so appallingly bleak.

Things We Lost in the Fire is not for the faint of heart. Readers who tackle it, however, will be rewarded (if that’s the right word) with horripilating visions of traumatic lives, strange syncretic cults, preemptive revenge, and characters who will not leave things alone.

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