The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison

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The Widow Nash

Of all the unconventional lives created for fictional heroines, I don’t know if anyone has conjured up anything as dangerously madcap as Dulcy Remfrey’s life in Jamie Harrison’s The Widow NashAs the daughter of a syphilitic geologist/miner, Dulcy grew up crisscrossing the globe as her father searched for precious minerals and cures. His death in Seattle is just the start of her own deadly adventure.

The telegram Dulcy receives at the beginning of The Widow Nash contains a double dose of bad news. Not only is her father in the last stages of syphilis, but she’s been summoned to care for him by her violent, unstable ex-fiancé. This is not a gesture of goodwill on Victor’s part. He wants Dulcy in Seattle so that, first, she can figure out where the profits from his last joint venture with Dulcy’s father went (Walton doesn’t remember) and, second, to reconnect with her. It is with the greatest trepidation that Dulcy travels to Seattle. When Walton dies without divulging his secret, Dulcy works out a way to escape Victor. (Some of the events that show why Dulcy wants to get away may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault.)

Dulcy fakes her death on a train headed back to New York for Walton’s funeral and reinvents herself as Mrs. Nash, the widow of a soldier who died during the Spanish-American War, in the rough frontier town of Livingston, Montana. As the novel progresses, we see her begin to relax into her new life even though the town is full of men as violent as Victor—though she is not the target of their wrath. Of course, some of the women (Dulcy included) are just as devious as the man. I cannot overstate how criminal this book is, as it seems like most of the secondary characters are involved in some kind of racket or other. There is some joy in the middle of all the shenanigans, as Dulcy manages to find real love in spite of her dread that Victor or his henchmen might discover her new name and whereabouts.

Even though this book is full of rogues and villains, I had a great time reading it. The plot meanders to give us excerpts from Dulcy’s former life and her father’s obsessions, but the tangle provides a portrait of an intelligent, determined woman who refuses to let anyone cow her. I loved that this book played around in the darkest of ethical gray areas as it told its tale. Dulcy and her allies bend rules until they break. Others break rules just because they can. What matters in the end, is why the rules were broken.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

Talking Books with Strangers

The most awkward bookish conversations I have are always with strangers who ask, as soon as they find out I’m a librarian, what my favorite book is or what I like to read. Every time this happens, my mind immediately goes blank. When I tweeted about this yesterday, I got some sympathy from my fellow book dragons. Finding out that I’m not the only one this happens to makes me feel better, but I wish I could respond to these questions with something more intelligent than, “Um…Well, I read a lot.”

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Marta Altés

The reason I blank out when I get asked by people I don’t know about my reading habits is that all of the possible answers I could give create a logjam on the way to my mouth. I read a lot. Unless I’m sick or have family obligations, I can read up to five books a week. No one apart from another book dragon wants to hear about all that and I know that strangers who ask the question are just trying to make conversation to pass the time. They are not prepared for the amount of bookish talk I can bring.

After the logjam, I start to overthink the whole thing and try to think of the most socially acceptable book to talk about. Which of the many books I’ve read recently should I tell this person about? The incredibly grim book about a horror movie? The book where women’s jaws rot because of radium? One of the many books about the Holocaust I’ve read? I know I’m weird, but I don’t want other people to know that about me right off the bat. I like to ease people into my bookishness and weirdness.

When I talk books with fellow readers, they understand that I can’t just pick one book or genre to talk about. I can pick a book or a genre to start with, after much mental struggle, but one book or genre can’t sum up who I am as a reader. It would be quicker to ask me what I don’t read (contemporary romance, true crime, hard science fiction, literary fiction about professors having affairs with students) or about a book I hated (The Great Gatsby—come fight me).

Yesterday, when a nurse asked me what I like to read, she made it easier for me by saying she’s a reader who’s looking for new books to read. Once the usual logjam cleared, the floodgates opened and we happily chatted about books for the rest of my appointment in between the medical stuff.

Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt

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Devastation Road

The period shortly before and after Germany surrendered in 1945 was violently chaotic. Some troops were still fighting. Others were fleeing across countries to be captured by the country of their choice. Most cities in central Europe had been bombed to smithereens. Refugees (and soldiers) were hungry, wounded, and desperate. All of this makes for a gut punch of a novel, Jason Hewitt’s Devastation Road, that reads like a World War II version of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

All Owen knows about himself as Devastation Road begins is his name, that he was maybe a pilot, and that he’s not in England. A few odd names and memories float around in his head, but nothing sticks for weeks. He also knows that he’s in hostile territory, so it’s fortunately that a young Czech Resistance fighter named Janek takes him under his teenage wing. The two barely share a common language and Janek is increasingly irritated by Owen’s faulty memory. The only reason the Czech sticks around is because Owen owes him two lives—though Owen has no idea why.

The pair duck and dodge German and Russian soldiers, heading west, until they run into another unfortunate soul. A young woman with a shaved head was trying to get someone to take her infant son, someone who could care for the child. After Owen takes the baby, Irena catches up to them and the slowly make their way to the German border through the Czech countryside. None of them are very happy about the arrangement, but not enough to strike out on their own. As the novel rolls along, Owen learns Janek and Irena’s secrets. His memories slowly return, enough for him to remember memories that he probably wishes would have remained buried.

While I enjoyed the characters, what I loved most about Devastation Road was its atmosphere of weary danger. Everyone is this novel is physically and emotionally exhausted (with a few stunning exceptions), but they carry on because the war is not quite over. Ever after the Axis surrender, the war wouldn’t be over for people looking for friends and relatives, their homes, or even just food to sustain them for another few steps. The plot serves, at least in part, as a vehicle for exploring the strange, bombed out world of central Europe in the spring of 1945.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2017.

The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Shadow Land

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land is another deep dive into history, though not so deep as in The HistorianIn this lengthy (possibly too lengthy) novel, an American would-be Samaritan accidentally steals an urn from a trio of Bulgarians. This mishap leads Alexandra Boyd all over Bulgaria in an attempt to return the urn, all while being chases by menacing henchmen of a rising politician and trying to learn why the man in the urn is so important. As Kostova writes in her note at the end of the book, this plot serves as a platform to plunge into the history of Bulgaria’s gulag system.

Alexandra has left a depressing set of divorced parents in the Blue Ridge mountains to teach English in Sofia, Bulgaria. She chose Sofia because it was her disappeared brother’s greatest wish to visit the country. Before she even gets to her hostel, Alexandra has a brief encounter with two elderly and one middle-aged Bulgarians. When she realizes she accidentally grabbed one of their bags (which contains a beautiful wooden urn), she does everything she can to return it. All she has to go on is the name on the urn: Stoyan Lazarov. Fortunately for Alexandra, she bumbles into a very useful friendship with a taxi driver, Asparuh, who has a lot more skill in detection that one might expect from the average cab driver. Her only misstep at the outset is to—as any Westerner might—ask the police for help tracing the family.

With the family incommunicado for most of the book, Alexandra and Asparuh end up traveling from Sofia to rural and mountain villages to Plovdiv to the Black Sea coast and back. With each stop, they learn a little bit more why an obscure violinist is of such interest to the politician who might be the next prime minister. The long historical and geographical road trip ends with a fairly spectacular show down in an old forced labor camp.

Unfortunately for us, the full revelations of what’s going on come very late in the book. We have to take the long way round, much like Alexandra and Asparuh. The Shadow Land is a thriller written by a historian. Someone more savvy with the genre’s conventions would have gone through this book like a buzzsaw, trimming unnecessary background (especially the odd first-person chapters in which Alexandra talks about her childhood and missing brother) and possibly a few of the stops. Because Kostova is a historian, moreover a historian with a reputation for writing novels with multiple layers of narrative frames, there are many digressions that are interesting but just slow things down in a plot that should race.

The best parts of The Shadow Land are the rich descriptions of Bulgaria’s varied landscapes, from post-Communist cities to mountains that have been inhabited for centuries. (I particularly loved the story of Baba Yana’s house, though it added only a little to the novel.) I want to go see some of the places Alexandra saw—hopefully not chased by henchmen, though. Some of the secondary characters were wonderful (mostly the old ladies). But by about page 300, I was very ready to be done with The Shadow Land.

We Eat Our Own, by Kea Wilson

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We Eat Our Own

Inspired by the making of and controversy surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, Kea Wilson’s disturbing We Eat Our Own is a story about artistic madness, danger, death, and the unknown. Set in 1979 in the Amazon jungle of Columbia, Italian director Ugo Velluto is attempting to make a new kind of horror film, something that will raise his reputation as a maker of schlock. Meanwhile, his lead actors are trying to keep up with him even though there is no script, his effects people are stymied by conditions and constant changes, and the country begins to descend into open warfare between cartels, the government, and rebels. It’s a wonder this book doesn’t have a higher body count than it does.

We Eat Our Own opens in New York, when an unnamed actor receives a call from his agent that he has been hired to be the lead in a film currently being shot in Columbia. The actor, who has been longing to break into something better than experimental (unpaid) theater and commercials, leaps at the chance. (Irritatingly, the actor’s chapters are written in the second person. I really don’t like reading second person prose, but the rest of the story kept me interested.) Because Ugo is so determined to have his actors’ performances seem real, does everything he can to put the actor into a state of paranoia, confusion, and fear. By the time the actor arrives on set almost a week after taking off from New York, he has no idea what’s going on and is not having a good time.

The unnamed actor is one of the main through lines for We Eat Our Own. The other is a series of excerpts from a court transcript. Ugo has been charged with criminal negligence and, possibly, murder. Sometime between the filming and the trial, the three main actors of Ugo’s film have gone missing. The film Ugo edited and released makes it look like all three have really been killed. Ugo refuses to tell the court what really happened, telling everyone that they need to watch the film and decide for themselves if the on screen deaths are real or not.

The chapters in between these two plot threads are told from the perspective of crew members or members of a local cadre of anti-government, anti-cartel rebels. Some of these chapters answer questions about what’s really going on; others further complicate the set. Ugo only has one chapter from his own perspective (along with the court scenes). For most of the novel, it’s hard to tell if he’s lost in artistic vision or an extremely skilled puppet master.

Throughout the book, characters ask each other or ponder for themselves why people watch horror movies and what those audiences want to see. Ugo is willing to pander to viewers who want gore, violence, and sex, even in his quest for putting something real on film. The actors have differing philosophies about performance. The unnamed actor is devoted to Stanislavski and character analysis. The female lead, Irena, is a master mimic who can switch emotions at the drop of a hat. She doesn’t care about method or psychology so much as she’s interested in the appearance of reality, even if it means taking her clothes off a lot. The director and the unnamed actor have higher ideals, compared to the cynics around them, but they are frequently shown up as out of touch with their audiences.

The predominate theory (both in the book and in what I know from listening to fans of horror) for why people watch these movies is that it provides emotional catharsis. The plots and scares wind up viewers until the climax, when good triumphs or a plot twist releases all that tension. We Eat Our Own does something similar. The confusion produced by the court scenes and the other chapters about what really happened in the jungle builds until the resolution near the end. But it adds an extra twist that makes you wonder if, even after the trick is revealed, the danger has really passed. I can’t say that I enjoyed We Eat Our Own, because it was a white-knuckle read, but it is some damn fine storytelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something light and fluffy to get this book out of my head.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Kait Howard reports that private prison companies are banning books that might actually benefit prisoners (e.g. books about health, the legal system, etc.). (Moby Lives)
  • Alex Acks has some great social media etiquette for readers, reviewers, and writers. (Book Riot)
  • Carlos Moore wants the court to order that a Mississippi state representative and others who defend Confederate monuments read books about the black experience in the south under Jim Crow, so that they can learn what it is they’re actually talking about. (Moby Lives)
  • Rah Carter has some great bookish statistics from Goodreads’ most popular books from the last hundred years. (Book Riot)
  • Emily Temple reports that there is now a prize for female book collectors! (LitHub)

An Unrestored Woman, by Shobha Rao

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An Unrestored Woman

In An Unrestored Woman, Shobha Rao tells a series of stories about characters that brush each others’ lives over the course of a century. Not only do characters from various stories meet, the plots share themes of love and betrayal, revenge and violence. The various stories, taken as a whole, offer different perspectives on what people are willing to do to each other to try and find their own happiness—and the prices they have to pay for their manipulations.

Some of the standout stories include:

“The Imperial Police” – Though several other stories feature downtrodden and abused women, this story struck me as the saddest one in the collection. Jenkins is a British officer in the Anglo-Indian police force just before the 1947 Partition (a pivotal event in many of the stories in An Unrestored Woman). He has been posted to the frontier town of Rawalpindi for behavior that becomes clear over the course of the story: Jenkins is attracted to men. He has fallen in love a few times in his life, but has never been able (or allowed) to express his feelings. In “The Imperial Police,” Jenkins accidentally causes the death of his latest object of affection in the growing sectarian violence in the city and now has to inform the man’s widow. As I read this story, I thought about what might have been for Jenkins if he’d lived in another time and another place.

“Such a Mighty River” – This might be my favorite story in the entire collection. Alok Debnath (who appears briefly in another story) is a retired man fading into Alzheimer’s. At 84, he’s making the most of what he has left—mostly the companionship of a woman he pays to spoon with him for a few hours. She serves as a reminder of Alok’s beloved wife. One day, Alok decides to go looking for the woman only to become lost in his memories of a day when his wife went missing early in their marriage. Time becomes a blur as Alok wanders the streets asking for his companion and his wife in turns. This is a moving story with a surprisingly violent ending.

“The Road to Mirpur Khas”- This story is a good example of what one can expect from most of the stories in An Unrestored Woman. The story begins with a disruption to the status quo. In the case of this story, it’s the Partition. Arya and her husband are headed for the orchards of Mirpur Khas, intending to work as pickers, before the unnamed husband’s naiveté means they are repeatedly robbed. The husband (and narrator) watches as his more practical wife becomes a prostitute to earn money. She grows more cynical as he comes to loathe himself. Their initial love for each other dies away because the husband emotionally betrayed his wife at a critical moment; he failed to fight for Arya when she needed him to.

The stories of An Unrestored Woman focus instead on emotional damage (which, for some reason, I can handle better than physical violence). And even though many of the stories are about betrayal and love, they offer different perspectives on what constitutes betrayal and how the victim of that betrayal can respond. The characters can either move on (as many of the female characters do) or let it destroy them (as many of the male characters do). This book is a grim testament to the motto “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

When I finished the collection, my honest reaction was “These stories could have been a lot more awful than they were.” I was relieved. I’ve read some terrifying, difficult stories this year. While An Unrestored Woman is not an easy read by any means, it is not as violent as it might have been.

The Veins of the Ocean, by Patricia Engel

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The Veins of the Ocean

Most of the reviews and summaries I’ve seen for Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean are, to put it mildly, off-putting. To be fair, the book does open with a horrific, shocking crime and I picked up the book expecting to be about that crime. Instead, I found a meditative book about the consequences of incarceration, captivity, and the prisons we build for ourselves through guilt and obligation. This book is so full of food for thought that I read it in one day.

Reina is a dedicated sister. It’s no wonder that she’s devoted to her brother Carlos, considering that her mother has been on the look out for a new man to keep her since Reina’s father hanged himself after trying to drown Carlos by throwing him off a bridge into the ocean. Even after Carlos commits a similar crime and is sentenced to death, Reina visits and helps pay legal fees for seven years. When Carlos hangs himself in his cell, Reina is cut loose and heads down to the Florida Keys, planning to start a new life where no one knows what her brother did.

All of this happens in the first third of The Veins of the Ocean and serves as a launching point for Reina to come to terms with the tragedies of her family’s past and her role in Carlos’ crime. The narrative and Reina’s mind constant return to what the men in her family have done and Carlos’ time in prison. Reina’s sense of guilt leads her to punish herself, to retreat from relationships and life. It’s only after she meets Nesto in the Keys and starts to work at a dolphinarium that she begins to come out of her self-imposed prison.

The parallels between Carlos’ incarceration and Reina’s punishment of herself grow as we learn more about Nesto’s ties to his family in Cuba and the behavior of a rescued dolphin in the dolphinarium. As the novel developed, I started to see a book that wasn’t so much about the awful choices we face and crimes we might commit, but rather stories that warn against imprisoning living things. The dolphin and Carlos were not meant to be kept in solitary cages; they slowly go bad. Reina and Nesto’s prisons are more complicated, because they are self-imposed. Both of them are deeply tied to their families. Nesto wants his family to escape Cuba the way he did, but he is constantly thwarted by bureaucracy and his ex-wife’s fear of change. Neither he nor Reina can move on with their lives until they learn to let go.

I was very moved by The Veins of the Ocean and will be thinking about it for a long time. Arguing that captivity is destructive is fairly simple, but Engel complicated things for her characters to create rich ethical dilemmas. Carlos killed a child and must be punished. But is locking him in solitary for seven years just? Is the rescued dolphin safer in captivity even though it can’t adjust to the tedium? Should Reina and Nesto cut their ties to family because their families are preventing them from finding happiness? The Veins of the Ocean has so many delicious questions to think about. It’s the kind of book I can see myself pushing on other readers, just so that I have someone to debate with.

Bibliotherapeutic Note: Recommend this book for readers who are trapped by toxic family situations or who otherwise need to learn to put down the burdens that are keeping them stagnant.

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

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Murder on Black Swan Lane

With Murder on Black Swan Lane, Andrea Penrose launches a new series featuring the satirical cartoonish Charlotte Sloane and the irascible Earl of Wrexford, set in Regency London. In this debut novel, Sloane and Wrexford team up to defeat a criminal mastermind before the villain succeeds in framing the earl for a series of ghastly murders.

Murder on Black Swan Lane kicks off with a prologue featuring two characters meeting in mysterious circumstances before one kills the other with acid and a knife to the throat. The prologue gives way to Wrexford being questioned by a Bow Street Runner about his whereabouts the night before. He and the victim had been trading increasingly angry words in the newspapers. Meanwhile, Charlotte Sloane, in her guise of cartoonist A.J. Quill, reveals in her newest work that she knows far more than anyone should about the details of the murder.

After Wrexford tracks Sloane down with a mix of bribery and curiously talented servants, the two strike a bargain to share information in order to track down the killer. The more I read, the more I was enthralled by the mystery and the characters. It was clear from the prologue that the central crime would involve some flimflammery about alchemy, but I very much enjoyed the way Penrose grounded the weird with the pragmatically criminal as the plot developed. I also appreciated the sparks between the highly independent investigators. I don’t mean romantic sparks (although Penrose laid some groundwork there for future stories). Rather, I mean sparks between clashing world views. Wrexford swears by logic and physical evidence. Sloane is more intuitive and relies on her wide learning and artist’s eye to figure out what’s missing in the gaps between the evidence.

The book has clear hints that there will be more to come (even setting up future plots here and here). The partnership between Sloane and Wrexford is wonderful reading, mostly because of their senses of humor and mutual inability to suffer fools. I definitely plan on reading future entries in this series.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 27 June 2017.

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women

Young adult literature has changed profoundly over the past century and a bit since Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was written. While modern young adult literature encourages readers to stand up against tyrannical governments, experiment with relationships with vampires, and navigate the darker sides of life, Little Women is part and parcel of how literature for minors used to show youngsters the benefits of following tradition and being a good Christian. There are some parallels in terms of doing the right thing even when its hard, but books like Alcott’s are difficult to read in this age because the characters are just so wholesome.

I first read Little Women when I was a teen, probably because I enjoyed the 1994 film version and wanted more time with Jo. (To this day, the film’s plot is the version that sticks in my head rather than the book’s plot.) Now that I’ve reread it, years and several gender in literature courses later, I have more than a few problems with how the March sisters are hammered into the shape of “angels in the house” while living in genteel poverty during and after the Civil War. I also have serious issues with Laurie, the boy next door who loves Jo but later marries her younger sister Amy. These problems are much better expressed by Maddie Rodriguez in her article for Book Riot, “Laurie Isn’t a Good Guy; He’s a Nice Guy™.”

The first half of Little Women is the one most familiar. In it, we are introduced to the four March girls, each with their particular vanities and quirks. Apart from the saintly Beth, each one is encouraged by their mother (who speaks mostly in parental lectures) to work on their character defects. Jo is too boyish—wild, messy, inclined to pull pranks, etc.—and has a temper that frequently flares up. Meg is too fond of material comfort and wealth. So is Amy, but Amy is also vain about her appearance. Some of these flaws are genuine concerns, but I was uncomfortable with the way the girls were taught to strive to become the Victorian ideal of wife and mother. Meg and Amy come the closest by the end of the book. Jo preserves some of her delightful eccentricity, but even she becomes a somewhat idealized wife and mother.

The half of Little Women reads like an extended epilogue in which we learn about what happens to the girls as they grow up, after their father returns from war and Beth fails to die of scarlet fever. (Beth’s death is completely different in the book.) It’s episodic and has little of the depth of the first half. We see less of the characters struggling with flaws and more hearing them talk about it, giving the appearance of summary rather than development.

I can’t help but be a product of my own time. I suspect this is the big reason why I dislike Little Women so much now. I’ve been taught about the virtues of individuality, how women have been culturally oppressed for centuries, and the myth of the friend zone. The narrative pushes its mid-nineteenth century values and morality through the characters and onto the reader. (I daresay readers in another century will say similar things about contemporary young adult fiction.) There are moments—usually when the girls are allowed to be themselves—that I enjoyed. For these moments, I think Little Women remains a classic that readers will look on fondly—but maybe shouldn’t reread after they’ve gotten a degree in literature.