The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

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

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I decided to kick off the spooky season with a century-old collection from M.R. James, a medievalist and archaeologist who did a bit of writing on the side. I’ve heard James’s name tossed around with that of other old masters of scary like Algernon Blackwood and others, so I was hoping for some classic chills with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Wikipedia entry, with additional links to free copies of the collection). These stories gave me a window into what readers found scary 117 years ago—and showed me that writers have really raised the stakes since this book hit the shelves.

Many of the stories follow a similar arc. They’re framed as tales retold by our unnamed narrator by his various friend and colleagues. These friends (most with connections to Cambridge University) travel to various places around Europe to look at collections of rare documents, obscure cathedrals, and poking into stories that might have a grain of truth. They might get a warning from someone local who knows better, but maybe not. Either way, when the sun goes down, something terrible happens in the night that nearly frightens the life out of the friend. As soon as the light comes back, the friend heads for the hills.

Although the stories in this collection are not as terrifying as what contemporary writers (especially horror movie writers) are coming up with these days. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I appreciated the way that James builds up tension by putting us into crypts and lonely tavern rooms alongside all those scholars who messed with things that were hidden, bricked up, or buried for centuries. These stories are the kind you tell around the campfire, slowly, so that the audience slowly freaks out until the end of the story delivers a cathartic moment of escape. Some of the standouts in this collection are “Number 13,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Lost Hearts.”

Readers who like little jolts of scary—especially when it comes along with a side of academic curiosity—will like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Readers who need something stronger to get their hearts racing might need to stick with horror written in this century rather than the last.

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

The Peculiarities, by David Liss

Thomas Thresher is the sort of person who, if I met him in real life, I would have nothing to do with. He’s a child of privilege who’s never had to work very hard in his life. He’s used to having fun and feels very put upon having to work as a junior clerk at the family bank. He feels even more put upon because his blustering older brother demands that he marry a woman he’s never met before. He struck me, at first, as the kind of useless, rich man who likes to get his way. My first impression of him was not sweetened with his casual Victorian-era anti-Semitism. But, over the course of The Peculiarities, by David Liss, Thomas started to win me over with his stubborn determination to uncover secrets and put things right.

Thomas doesn’t make a very good impression on many of the people he meets at the beginning of the novel. Miss Feldstein doesn’t like his casual sexism. His boss at the bank doesn’t like his inability to keep his mouth shut. And his brother really doesn’t like him, but we don’t really learn why until much later in The Peculiarities, when Thomas’s investigations start to bear fruit. The only people who actually seem to like Thomas are the wolfwomen he meets in the East End and the one and only Aleister Crowley…but that comes after Thomas starts poking around at the bank and finds some financial peculiarities. The financial peculiarities led Thomas to new friends, but also to a mystery involving the Peculiarities—the supernatural phenomena that have appeared around the world that have caused people to transform, women to give birth to rabbits à la Mary Toft, and strange creatures to messily kill people in the poorer districts of London.

Aleister Crowley in his Golden Dawn regalia, c. 1910
(Image via Wikicommons)

All of those plot threads—plus Thomas’s attempts to stop his own transformation and not marry Miss Feldstein—take Thomas to the East End, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and to a trio of mysterious women (including Miss Feldstein) who might be able to help him unravel all the threads. All of these threads (and the women) push Thomas to grow into something more than a young man with a big allowance and too much time on his hands. He also started to shed his Victorian notions of proper behavior for women and the stereotypes about Jewish people. Thank goodness.

Because of my initial reaction to Thomas, I wasn’t sure I would like The Peculiarities all that much. I’m not averse to unlikeable characters, not as long as they have some kind of redeeming features or are interesting in some other way. But I’m glad I stuck with the novel. Liss’s supernatural reinvention of London was highly original and very entertaining. Crowley had me laughing every time the egotistical pervert showed up. Most of all, I love that The Peculiarities never went where I expected. I appreciate a story that never makes anything simple.

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

The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Trigger warning for rape.

In the nineteenth century, a woman could be diagnosed with hysteria for an array of symptoms that range from hallucinations, epilepsy, and depression to irritability, menstrual pain, or doing too much/too little of something that bothered the men in her life. Hysteria could get a woman locked away for life in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other places until doctors were able to differentiate illness and mental disorders from normal behavior. This terrifies me and fascinates me, so a book like Victoria Mas’s The Mad Women’s Ball (smoothly translated by Frank Wynne) is my equivalent of watching a horror movie. I get chills. I wonder what I would do. Then I recommend it to other people so that I can spread the feeling around.

Historically, Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot studied women with hysteria and other illnesses (or not) at the notorious Paris hospital, the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. His practice involved “lectures,” during which patients would be hypnotized so that they would perform muscle contractures, paralysis, and other physical symptoms of their “illness.” I’m using a lot of danger quotes here because Charcot’s actions and patient diagnoses were perfectly acceptable at the time. Now, in the twenty-first century, we know a lot more about mental illness, conversion disorders, human behavior, etc. Also, we have medical ethics that would prevent Charcot’s lectures/performances. Charcot is a tertiary character in The Mad Women’s Ball. Two of the main characters, however, share names with one of Charcot’s most famous patients, Louise Augustine Gleizes.

Geneviève Gleizes is the head nurse of one of the wards at Salpêtrière. She maintains order on the ward with a firmness that masks a surprising brittleness. At first, Geneviève is a rock, but it isn’t long before we start to see that she’s suppressing grief for her deceased sister. Then there’s Louise, Charcot’s patient du jour, who performs at his lectures in an effort to become famous. Sort of. Lastly, we meet Eugénie. I’m not sure if she’s based on a historical figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugénie, who sees ghosts, was based on one of the many women who had successful careers contacting the other side during the height of the Spiritualist craze. Eugénie and Geneviève immediately put each other’s backs up. Geneviève is offended when Eugénie claims to see and hear Geneviève’s sister. Eugénie just wants to get out of the Salpêtrière and Geneviève represents everything that’s holding her prisoner.

The Mad Women’s Ball rushes by. It plays out over the weeks before the eponymous event, where the wealthy of Paris are invited into Salpêtrière to see the patients dressed up in costumes for their entertainment. The whirlwind plot makes it seem like everything is spiraling out of control just that much faster as the characters lose their grip on their equilibrium. This makes the book sound a lot more grim than I think it is because, while things are falling apart, all three of the primary characters are learning. Louise learns to shed her naiveté. Eugénie learns what it takes to be free. And Geneviève learns to let go of “sanity” so that she can finally feel her emotions. This book is a master class in character development and plotting. And it definitely made me feel the frisson of terror I was expecting at the same time that I marveled at the story.

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

Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière, by Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887. Charcot (the grey-haired man just right of center) is shown with his patient, Marie “Blanche” Wittman, and some of the leading lights of European medicine at the end of the nineteenth century. (Image via Wikipedia)

A Radical Act of Free Magic, by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry draws her sprawling historical fantasy to an abrupt close in A Radical Act of Free Magic. The first half of the duology, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, created a world of suppressed magic that erupted into the French and Haitian Revolutions. Now we see a magically boosted Napoleon attempting to steamroll across Europe. With a kraken. And a dragon.

Where A Declaration had plots running in tandem, connected by a character it would be a spoiler to talk too much about, the plots coalesce geographically in A Radical Act. Fina makes the long journey from Haiti to Great Britain so that most of the action takes place in London or William Pitt’s various residences. There are some amazing set pieces in Egypt and Trafalgar that people who know Regency history will know the significance of. (Sadly, there isn’t one for Waterloo.)

The battles liven up an awful lot of dialogue about what kind of world the various characters want to create. William Wilberforce and Fina cross verbal swords with Pitt about abolition, who keeps putting it off to focus on fighting a war and maintaining power against idiots who would muck it all up. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his (supposed) magical ally are sparring over who will eventually rule over continental Europe. Will there ever be meaningful progress? Or will Fina and Wilberforce have to grudgingly content themselves with gradualism? Will their enemies win and push Great Britain and Europe back into the dark ages? How on earth will our heroes defeat that dragon?

A Declaration gave me high hopes for this duology. I love a solid historical fantasy that blends magic with actual historical events. A Radical Act of Free Magic, however, felt more like a middle book than the second half of a two-book series. Characters are shuffled around so that they’ll be in place for showdowns or whatever the plot cooks up for them. Plans are discussed. Philosophies are delved into. It happens at a fairly leisurely pace that made me think that there was going to be another book after this one for a great big resolution. Also, who brings Napoleon into a book and doesn’t include the Battle of Waterloo? I had fun during parts of this book, but the rushed ending killed a lot of my enjoyment of this book.

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

The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart, by Nancy Campbell Allen

Not everything I choose to read is an intellectual puzzle or a heartbreaking exploration of human pain. Sometimes I read fun, sweet books like Nancy Campbell Allen’s The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart. In this book, idealistic Amelie Hampton wrangles her way into gruff detective Michael Baker’s investigation of a possible wife-killer. I realize this doesn’t sound very fun or sweet when I summarize the book that way but, as in so many cozy mysteries, the investigation gives our protagonists something to do while they slowly open their hearts to one another.

Amelie and Michael don’t have the most auspicious meet-cute. Michael catches Amelie spying on the man he is also spying on: Harold Radcliffe. Amelie is hovering outside the cafe where Radcliffe is dining with a young woman Amelie advised from her desk at the Marriage Gazette, where she works for her aunt. She’s there to see if the meeting is going well. Michael is there to learn more about his quarry, who he believes murdered his young wife scant months earlier. When Amelie starts to leave, Michael chases her down. (Amelie frequently describes this as “running to ground” to tease the detective.) Before he quite knows what has happened—he merely intended to find out what Amelie knows about Radcliffe—Amelie has volunteered herself as Michael’s deputy. She’s going to help get Michael closer to Radcliffe by inviting him along to her book club, where Radcliffe is also a member.

The mystery and the romance plots are brisk but not forced. There are enough twists in the mystery to keep things interesting, while the romance plot is punctuated with moments between the protagonists that had me smiling widely at the pair. I won’t say much more about this book; I don’t want to ruin either plot. So I’ll conclude by saying that if you want something that’s a delight to read, you should pick up The Matchmaker’s Lonely Heart.

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

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin

I apologize, dear readers, for the sporadic posting over the summer. I just got back home after a long weekend in California (which involved a lot of driving). But all my conferences are over and I don’t have any travel plans for the rest of the summer. I hope to get back on track with my reading as of now.

My family has been collecting movie quotes for years. We use them as shorthand for all kinds of situations. (Keeping up with my family conversations requires a massive watching and reading list.) One of them, which my dad used to quote all the time, was on a constant loop in my brain as I read The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, by Tom Lin. Ming Tsu “is not a hard man to follow. He leaves dead folks wherever he goes.” This novel is a whirlwind of revenge across miles of blistering American desert and frozen mountain ranges as the titular character crosses off names on his hit list on his way back to the woman he loves.

The first chapters have all the makings of a classic revenge story: a wronged man, a path of violence, lots of baddies who are so bad you’d have to work really hard to empathize with them. But then things get weird. Somewhat surprisingly for a man blazing a road of violence, Ming Tsu begins to collect company. The first member is a Chinese man who can predict the future but who can’t remember anything. Then Ming Tsu is hired by a company of performers who can really do miracles. One member can change his shape. Another can speak without vocalizing a syllable. Yet another can go up in flames without burning. Even the road crew have gifts. I was fascinated by the mysterious company. To be honest, I wanted more of their story than I did of Ming Tsu’s.

From the perspective of the traveling company, Ming Tsu’s quest for vengeance hijacks their plan to travel around the west making money. Every town they stop in soon erupts into violence as Ming Tsu either finds another man on his list to kill or gets recognized by someone who saw his face on a bounty poster. I completely lost track of how many people Ming Tsu kills. The plot occasionally slows down to give us a glimpse of Ming Tsu’s past or as one of his companions tells him about there past, but this is not a book about self-reflection. It’s about racism and violence and loyalty, but not about changing one’s mind once it’s made up.

There are parts of The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu that I liked—mostly the traveling miracle show and the highly atmospheric descriptions of the Western desert—but it got lost in Western-genre shootouts. The way I see it, the Western genre is so moribund that any new stories in the genre must do something new. The supernatural elements helped but, like I’ve said, I wanted those elements to be more developed. The ethnically Chinese character also helped. This element is explored a lot more, albeit mostly in the form of a lot of anti-Chinese racism and language and Ming Tsu kicking racist ass across Utah and Nevada (if you can call that exploration). Readers looking for a spin on the classic Western revenge might enjoy this. Readers who want more substance to their gunfights should maybe mosey on down the line.

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

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

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

Dust Off the Bones, by Paul Howarth

I have a few rules about reading. If a book doesn’t hook you within 50 pages, stop reading it. Dog earring and writing in a book is okay, but only if it’s yours. And, if I finish a book before going to bed, I have to immediately start a new one. While I might bend on the first of these rules, books like Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones remind me why I made the third rule in the first place. The ending of this book had my pulse pounding so hard that I needed the start of a new book to wind myself back down so that I could sleep. Howarth takes us into the outback of Australia, before and after the turn of the twentieth century, to give us a harrowing story about violence, racism, guilt, and the ties that bind.

The violence starts early in Dust Off the Bones. The book opens with a brief prologue set in Queensland in 1885, in which an itinerant minister stumbles across the scene of a massacre of an entire tribe of Aboriginal Australians. The minister rushes to the nearest town to report it to the magistrate, only to be strongly “encouraged” to let it go. The next chapters jump ahead five years and to new narrators. As the pages tick by, we learn a little more about what happened in 1885. Our new narrators, Billy and Tommy McBride, are the surviving members of their family, who were violently killed in 1885. The official story has it that the family’s Aboriginal servant killed the McBrides while the boys were off fishing. A unit of Native Police—a horrific paramilitary group who killed an untold number of Aboriginal people as white settlers moved further and further into Aboriginal territory—go off after the servant and, ostensibly, kill him, his companions, and also a lot of members of the Kurrong*.

The man in charge of the unit of police is absolutely terrifying. Edmund Noone is a virulent racist who thinks nothing of torturing, raping, or killing people. Noone haunts the McBride brothers. He pushed Billy into doing terrible things, then holds the knowledge over the man, adds threats against everyone he loves, to get Noone a little further along his career path. The mere thought of Noone—and an accidental killing plus a whopping dose of post-traumatic stress disorder—send Tommy running from Queensland to Victoria. Dust Off the Bones jumps ahead from 1890 to 1897 to 1906 and beyond, dropping in on the characters as they try to build lives in the shadow of what they did. And, as if this wasn’t complicated enough, a crusading, anti-racist lawyer from Brisbane is trying to uncover the truth of what happened and finally nail Noone to the wall as he deserves.

All the blood and betrayal in the dusty Australian Outback gave me strong Western genre vibes. This is one of the best of the genre I’ve read because the women are complex, strong characters and the racism of the white characters doesn’t extend to the characterization or actions of the Aboriginal people. The plot is also absolutely fantastic; reading it was like the literary equivalent of being a frog in heating water. The longer I read, the faster I went. I just had to know what would happen. Who would survive to the end? Would the truth come out? Would there be justice? Could there be justice?

Dust Off the Bones is an extraordinary read and I would recommend it to any fan of historical fiction who also has a strong stomach.

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

*As far as I can tell, the Kurrong are fictional, but what happened to them was not uncommon before, during, and after the years that the Native Police were active.

The Kingdoms, by Natasha Pulley

Beware of Scottish standing stones! It was true in the Outlander series and it’s true in Natasha Pulley’s new novel, The Kingdoms. This book might be Pulley’s most complicated story yet. It crosses history with alternate history, love and suppressed love, characters blinking in and out of existence, amnesia and shifting identities, and lots of conflicting motives. This sounds confusing. I’m not going to lie; parts of The Kingdoms are confusing. But I was hooked on figuring out what the heck was going on and the charmingly bewildered main character.

Joe wakes up on a train somewhere in England in 1891. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s not entirely sure what his name is. And when he learns that the train has just pulled into the Gare du Roi in Londres, he suddenly gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong. On arriving at the station, Joe is whisked off to the new Salpêtrière and told that he, like many other Britons, has a kind of epilepsy that has caused him to lose his memory. Readers with a dollop of French and a smidgen of history will know that this London—now Londres—is one where England was successfully invaded by the French, instead of an England that won at the Battle of Waterloo. Joe has no idea what’s wrong; he barely knows what his name is. So when two people show up at the hospital and claim him as an escaped slave, he has little choice but to go with them and try to settle into some kind of life.

The feeling of wrongness doesn’t go away in spite of Joe’s efforts. So, when he has the opportunity to travel to a lighthouse that has some link to his lost past, Joe finagles a trip to the wild, unconquered north. And then The Kingdoms starts to get really weird. Joe is kidnapped and whisked through time to 1807, finding himself in the middle of a very different version of the Napoleonic Wars. The strange stones off the coast of Eilean Mor in Scotland is where everything went wrong. It’s where, in 1797, a steam-powered ship blundered through from an England that won the war against Napoleon. It’s also where a man named Jem fell overboard and the ship and the crew were captured by the French. Not only does the ship, The Kingdom, represent a lot of advanced technology for the French, its crew is also a wealth of knowledge that the French can use to manipulate the future. Poor Joe and his engineering knowledge are caught in the middle of all of this. It’s not until much later that he learns how he got involved and just what his connection is to the disturbing and invincible Captain Missouri Kite.

The Kingdoms is the kind of time-travel/alternate history story that fascinates me. I love to think about historical what-ifs and might-have-beens. I like to follow chains of events back to moments that might be turning points. If this happens instead of that at just this moment, what will the downstream effects be? And, on top of that, what’s the “right” version if there is such a thing as “right”? After all, we wouldn’t think anything was wrong if the French had won at Trafalgar. It would just be history as we know it. Why should Joe help Missouri and the English win? He has no idea which side offers the better future.

Pulley’s other novels—and I’m thinking specifically of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street here—had whimsy to leaven the heavy moments. The Kingdoms, on the other hand, is a very serious book. There are several moments of surprising violence that stunned me and I completely lost track of the number of explosions. If anything lightens this book up, it’s the hints of love between Joe and Missouri that appear in the brief, quiet moments. The hope that Joe might finally recapture his lost memory and the hope that he and Missouri will be able to be together are what pulled me through this twisty, turn-y, exciting novel.

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