historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

historical fantasy · review

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s amazing Winternight trilogy comes to a satisfying close in The Winter of the Witch. This novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the previous volume and readers should read this series in order so that they don’t get lost right off the bat. Everything in the first two books has been building towards the events in this concluding installment. 

Our protagonist, the beaten and weary Vasilisa Petrovna, is not allow to rest after the night when Moscow was almost destroyed by an angry firebird. There was so much destruction and confusion that the people of Moscow want someone to pay. Vasya is only just barely able to escape when an old enemy whips up a mob to try and burn her as a witch. The first chapters made me ache for Vasya. She was only trying to help. Of course, a lot of protagonists were only trying to help when they inadvertently caused all hell to break loose. Still, there’s no excuse for trying to burn someone alive. 

Her escape leads her on a series of episodic adventures that end up putting the Rus’ to rights after years of conflict between the supernatural chyerti and the Orthodox church; the warring Medved the Bear and his brother the winter king, Morozko; and the Rus’ and their Tatar overlords. Everywhere Vasya goes, she has to extract promises and strike bargains in an effort to save lives and find a measure of peace for everyone. Her tasks seem so impossible that, even though I knew things had to come out right because this was the last book in the series, I worried. Vasya has so much on her shoulders in this book between all of these struggles on top of her worries over her own sanity and for her family. The fact that she bears up under all of this had me marveling over her strength and ingenuity. 

Readers who have been following the series will be more than satisfied with this conclusion, I think. Each episode in the book is tense, with high stakes if Vasya should falter. All the loose ends are tied up. Nothing is easy and the ending is more than earned. Arden treats us to plenty of magic and headstrong characters drawn from Russian history and folklore, with new creatures we haven’t seen before. I savored every page of The Winter of the Witch. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

contemporary fantasy · review

Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

There are some research topics that are perennial at the library. Most of the time, I don’t mind these. One of the ones that I regularly struggle with is the value of a liberal arts education. I struggle with this because I don’t understand why students don’t just naturally see the point of it; it’s hard to rhapsodize about critical thinking skills, adaptability, and so on to someone who isn’t getting it. But when I read Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s wrenching contemporary fantasy novel, Vita Nostra (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey), I suddenly saw why they had a hard time understanding why their professors had them slave over obscure, difficult texts for hours. Sasha Samokhina, our protagonist, has absolutely no idea why she’s been coerced into attending Institute of Special Technologies in a remote Russian town. And, until near the end when the purpose of it all is spectacularly revealed, neither do we.

Sasha’s plans for college are vague when the unsettling Farit Kozhennikov finds her while on vacation at the beach with her mother. Using the threat that “something terrible will happen” if she doesn’t comply, Farit gives her a series of tasks to complete before informing her that she will attend the Institute of Special Technologies instead of a normal university. Once at the Institute, Sasha is set to studying incomprehensible texts and trying to perform seemingly impossible mental exercises. It’s only after a full year of this rough education that Sasha starts to see its possibilities. We, like Sasha, have to trust that there really is a point to it all. 

But even though there is an objective—which her professors repeatedly tell her that she has to learn on her own and that they can’t just tell her—I had to wonder if it worth the struggle and the transformation Sasha experiences. Sasha has to content with her bizarre and rigorous education in addition to figuring out her feelings for Kostya Kozhennikov (the son of her “advisor,” Farit) and the scorn of girls who bully her. In that sense, Vita Nostra shares some of the tropes of the growing genre of magic school novels. Vita Nostra strongly reminded me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy because these mundane concerns are given just as much time as the magical elements; the fiendishly complicated curriculum heightened the similarities. This book had so much emotional weight that there were times I didn’t think I could bear it. I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what happens when Russian language writers got their hands on the genre.

Vita Nostra felt like a paradox while I was reading it. On the one hand it’s a slow burn that encompasses the first three years of Sasha’s career at the Institute. I wrestled with the strange texts and exercises along with Sasha, eventually achieving an awareness of what the school is teaching its coerced student body. It really is an extraordinary course of study. I know I wouldn’t be able to hack it, but I am a little bit tempted because of what the students might be able to do once they graduate. On the other hand, I felt like I was racing along with Sasha as she devoured her magical training. The curriculum at the Institute is just as much about transformation (literally) as it is about training young minds to see the world for what it really is and Sasha wants as much as she can handle and more—to the frequent exasperation and occasional horror of her professors.

Which brings me back around to the question of whether or not a rigorous, bewildering education is worth the struggle, especially when students can’t see the end point. The things Sasha learns are firmly in the territory of things we shouldn’t mess with. To say that this kind of knowledge is worth having and using seems like something Faust would argue and look at what happened to him. But Vita Nostra responds to this question by having Sasha’s professors repeatedly stress restraint, warning Sasha that she’s not mature enough to exercise her new abilities. The question at the end of Vita Nostra is not why; the question is should. We have a lot to look forward to in the next books in the series because I strongly suspect that, even at the end, Sasha still hasn’t learned caution. 

I hope that Hersey keeps translating these books. Her work seems perfectly faithful and imperceptible. Her translation never gives things away too soon, just like Sasha’s professors.

literary fiction · review

Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, by Yusuke Kimura

In April of 2011, northern Japan suffered a trio of disasters. A massive offshore earthquake triggered an even bigger tsunami, which immediately caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. These disasters and the long (still partly unfinished) cleanup after are never far in the background in Yusuke Kimura’s two novellas, Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge (translated by Doug Slaymaker).

In Sacred Cesium Ground, our protagonist gives us a front row seat to one of the more gutting consequences of the three disasters. Because of the catastrophic and wide-reaching radiation contamination, people were told to leave their animals behind when they were evacuated. Some animals starved to death before their owners could return for them. Nishino, our narrator, has heard of a farm called the Fortress of Hope, where a rancher is collecting abandoned cattle instead of putting the animals down per government orders. Nishino has left her unsatisfying and abusive life in Tokyo to volunteer at the Fortress. In Isa’s Deluge, a young man named Shōji begins collecting stories about his notoriously violent uncle Isao (called Isa). The stories and the possibility that he might someday publish a slightly fictionalized version of them keep him going even though his life is nearly as depressing and purpose-less as Nishino’s is. Reading Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge reminded me strongly of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in that all three of these stories are about characters who don’t fit, who don’t have the same reactions as other people. Sacred Cesium Ground and Isa’s Deluge, however, pack a bigger emotional punch.

An interesting wrinkle to these stories is revealed in the translator’s afterword. Slaymaker writes that Kimura’s novellas are based closely on the author’s own experiences. The Fortress of Hope is modeled on an actual farm of rescued cows. The stories about Uncle Isa are based on family stories from the author’s own family. These two novellas, however, didn’t strike me as auto fiction. Described purely in terms of plot, these novellas seem relatively simple. What makes these stories complicated is the emotional depth and their commentary on Japanese society and the official response to the disaster. As I read both of them and followed the action, I could also see Nishino and Shōji winding themselves up in frustration, helplessness, sense of misunderstanding, and anger at everything until they snap. Autofictional stories—at least the ones I’ve read before—are heavier on the plot than they are on the character studies.

A cow walks down a road in April 2011in the evacuation zone after the tsunami. (Image by VOA Herman, via Wikicommons)

Slaymaker writes in that same afterword that he struggled to convey the Northern Japanese dialect the characters speak, but I didn’t notice anything too unnatural with his solution of having the characters talk a bit like lower class New Yorkers. The accent doesn’t detract from the emotional struggles of the characters or the unsettlingly detailed descriptions of the tsunami ravaged landscape. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed reading these novellas, given the subject matter. (Sacred Cesium Ground is particularly wrenching for me.) But I can say that I appreciated them a lot for the way they grapple with the Japanese psyche and the unhealed wounds of April 2011.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

mystery · review

The Belting Inheritance, by Julian Symons

Christopher Barrington, the narrator of Julian Symons’ frequently twee mystery The Belting Inheritance, has a complicated relationship with his family. It’s not the kind of complicated relationship we usually see in fiction. Christopher has a fairly good relationship with Lady W and his uncles; it’s only when he’s older that he learns that very few people actually like the Wainwrights of Belting. He also learns, when a possible long-lost relative returns, that the Wainwrights are their own worst enemies. 

Christopher begins his narrative in a way reminiscent of Tristam Shandy. It takes him a long time to get to the point. This may annoy some readers, but the opening of The Belting Inheritance sets up the quirkiness and eccentricity of the Wainwrights. Uncle Myles has the mind of a crossword puzzler. Lady Wainright and Uncle Stephen seem like stock characters from Dickens. Aunt Clarissa and her bull terriers are also from central casting. Christopher seems to be headed towards caricature himself when a man claiming to be one of his uncles, David, believed to have died after being shot down over Germany in 1944, sends a letter to Belting. The letter sets the cat among the pigeons. Lady W is over the moon, but her sons are very much not happy at the thought that their mother is being duped and that their inheritance might be even more diminished. Everyone’s problems get that much worse when the “lost uncle” turns up with a shady lawyer in tow and Christopher trips over a corpse the very next day.

After the corpse appears in the shrubbery at Belting, self-described aesthete Christopher develops “detective fever.” He starts asking his own questions alongside the police. It’s lucky for Christopher that he meets Elaine Sullivan fairly early in his investigation. Elaine is much more savvy than Christopher is, having grow up outside of the strange Belting bubble. Not only did she grow up in the real world, Elaine has some actual experience asking questions and putting the answers together from her work with a small newspaper in Folkestone. Christopher hilariously looses his head when he and Elaine follow the clues tying the mysterious, possibly faux uncle and not just one but two murders over the Channel to France. Thankfully, Elaine keeps him from drifting into a someone’s art project as the clues start to come together on a sea of pastis in Christopher’s brain. 

The Belting Inheritance is another re-published mid-twentieth century mystery and, as such, bears some of the hallmarks of the genre: fiendish puzzles, plenty of surprising reveals, etc. That said, this novel is far from a masterpiece. It’s overly complicated. Christopher’s narration seems more interested in creating little character studies and obscure jokes than anything else. Readers who don’t like twee novels should probably avoid this book; it is unbearably silly at times. Readers who like lateral thinking and possess an English public school education will feel right at home with this novel, even if it does wrap up too neatly at the end.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

literary fiction · review

Sugar Run, by Mesha Maren

It is difficult, if not impossible, for newly released convicts to get back on their feet after their sentences. The lucky ones find jobs and have support networks. Unlucky ones, like Jodi in Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run, have no guidance after they are set at liberty. All Jodi has is an appointment with a parole officer, a $400 loan from her family, and a self-imposed mission to find a friend from eighteen years prior with whom she has unfinished business. Jodi was a very young girl when she went in, with no advanced education or job skills; she was in prison for longer than she was free. All that said, I think any reader can agree that the choices Jodi makes after she finishes her sentence are definitely not the right choices.

We meet Jodi on the bus from Jaxton Prison, where she has just finished serving eighteen years for manslaughter. She has a vague plan to go back to the town her lover, Paula, was from in Georgia to pick up the lover’s younger brother, to save him from an abusive family. Long flashbacks slowly reveal what happened between Jodi and Paula that landed Jodi in prison for so long. In between the flashbacks, we watch Jodi as she makes one bad decision after another: she picks up a drug addict with three kids who is in the middle of a long, emotional drama with her musician husband; she helps said drug addict kidnap those kids; she squats on family land that was auctioned off for taxes; she lets her brother store drugs and more on the property. There’s a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs in this novel, which absolutely does not help things.

Sugar Run depicts a train wreck of a life. There are so many points in Jodi’s story where, if she’d had a bit more perspective and a bit more of a vision of what she wanted her life to be, Jodi might have been okay. Jodi might also have been okay if she’d had a functional support system, if she hadn’t returned to the economically depressed mountains of West Virginia, if she hadn’t fallen in lust with a drug addict. But then, Jodi might also have been okay right from the very beginning if it weren’t for her jealously and complete inability to say no to people who want her to do illegal things for them. Which brings me back around to the question about whether or not it’s possible for convicts to have any kind of life after serving time. Is it Jodi’s circumstances or her personality that landed her in trouble? Is it her situation or her inability to learn from her mistakes that keeps her from a legal kind of life? Sugar Run doesn’t give us any answers along with these questions, but it offers plenty of food for thought about readers curious about prison and judicial reform or life in Appalachia. This is an excellent book club read. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.