The Absolutist, by John Boyne

The dictionary definitions of “cowardice” and “bravery” pale in comparison to actually deciding what to do in the face of a war as terrible as World War I. In The Absolutist, by John Boyne, everything revolves around questions of bravery and cowardice: in facing apocalyptic combat, revealing one’s sexuality in a setting where it is illegal, concealing terrible secrets. We see men who shout in the face of danger and figuratively whip others into charging the guns. We see men who run. And we see men who are caught in between the extremes. The Absolutist is the fourth book I’ve read by Boyne and I have really come to enjoy the very real ethical dilemmas he creates in fully-realized historical settings.

Tristan Sadler is one of the thousands of veterans living with awful memories of what is sometimes known as the Great War. That war—also called the War to End All Wars with painful historical irony—was catastrophic in so many ways. Jingoism combined with nineteenth-century tactics and weapons of mass destruction to destroy a generation. Tristan lied about his age to join the British Army after his family turned him out. (He kissed a boy.) At training camp, Tristan meets a teenaged boy he has an affinity with—perhaps even a shared attraction. But because all of the boys will be sent to France in just a few short weeks, anything that might be there has an expiration date.

The Absolutist is framed around a long conversation Tristan has with the sister of that teenaged boy, Will, shortly after the end of the war. The book moves back and forth between that conversation and Tristan’s memories of training and his time in the trenches. Every turn of the conversation leads Tristan to a memory of his relationship with Will. Marian becomes the only person Tristan tells the whole truth, from his attraction to Will to the heartbreaking act that Tristan regrets and conceals about as much as his sexuality. There are hints about the tragedy ahead that kept me glued to the pages. It’s Shakespearean in the best possible way.

Will and Tristan constantly discuss cowardice and bravery. It begins with the topic of a conscientious objector in their unit. Wolf is almost universally reviled by the officers and recruits. Will is intrigued. Although he is also a volunteer, he starts to ask questions about fighting. He also starts to wonder if it might actually be braver to stand against everyone by objecting to combat than it is to fight in France. (I would argue that both are forms of bravery.) Tristan, however, is so concerned with keeping his sexuality a secret that he becomes a model of conformity. This includes calling anyone who won’t fight a feather-man (because conscientious objectors were sometimes given white feathers in public, to shame them) or coward. This long-running debate between Tristan and Will—over fighting or objecting to fighting—completely flips when Tristan forces Will to talk about their sexual relationship.

There is so much food for thought in The Absolutist. I would’ve loved to read it with a book group so that I could hash out the questions this novel raises. I also very much enjoyed the rich characterization here. Boyne creates characters that don’t often see. There aren’t any heroes or villains. All of the characters are flawed and utterly human. I can’t say enough how much I relished reading The Absolutist.

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

The Savage Instinct, by Marjorie DeLuca

Trigger warning for psychological abuse.

In 1873, Mary Ann Cotton was executed for the murders of her husbands and several of her children by arsenic. The sheer number of Cotton’s victims and her seeming callousness toward all of the deaths in her life horrified Victorian Britons. She was all over the broadsheets. She is all over Marjorie DeLuca’s novel, The Savage Instinct, too, although it is narrated by the much less murderous Clara Blackstone. As Clara tells her story—and hears Cotton tell hers—we see how the label of madness gets slapped on any woman whose behavior takes her outside of the narrow confines of acceptable Victorian womanhood.

When we meet Clara Blackstone, she is in a very fragile state. She has just been released from a stint in an ostensibly genteel asylum for women (which was preceded by a turn in the much less civilized Bedlam). At first, all we know is that Clara has suffered at the hands of the doctors’ barbaric treatments and that her latest doctor does not believe she has any mental illness. It’s only after her release that we learn how Clara ended up in those asylums in the first place. Her husband, Henry, used the excuse of Clara’s “outburst” after the stillbirth of their child to lock her up. Now that she’s out, it seems like Clara will always bear the stigma of her time in the asylums; everything she does is labeled as a possible sign that her “madness” is returning.

At the urging of her husband’s new friends and to escape the suffocation of staying stuck in her room at home, Clara begins to visit the prison in Durham. Clara and other women of her class can talk to the prisoners under the guise of ministering to the women—although Clara uses it to sate her newfound fascination with Mary Ann Cotton. Clara’s return home happens under the cover (so to speak) of Cotton’s arrest and pre-trial imprisonment. Everyone is too busy gossiping and speculating about Cotton to be gossiping and speculating about Clara. Clara has her own ideas about Cotton, so she takes advantage of the prison visits to talk to a woman who appears to have the bravery to murder the men in her life who would use her. That bravery is incredibly attractive to Clara.

The Savage Instinct is not a relaxing read. I don’t think I unclenched after the first few pages. I knew a little bit about Cotton’s eventual fate from my interest in true crime, but I had no idea what would happen with Clara. Every time Clara seemed to get a leg up on her husband’s schemes, there’s a twist that turns everything around again. Would she be able to thwart her husband’s evil plans? Would she be able to get away? What price would she have to pay to break free? Underneath all of this wonderful dramatic tension is the frequently horrifying theme of pre-code of ethics psychology and a medical-legal system that was far too willing to certify inconvenient people insane to get them out of the way.

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

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

There are so many novels that have been published in the last ten years that have plots set in different centuries, linked by some historical artifact or location or family, that I would’ve thought there would be a name for this structure by now. If anyone knows, please clue me in. In The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner, the centuries are the eighteenth and the twenty-first. The link is a small glass bottle with a bear etched into it. The little bottle is discovered by Caroline, on an impromptu mudlarking expedition on what is supposed to be a second honeymoon. Little does she know that the bottle once belonged to a woman who used her knowledge to make troublesome husbands disappear permanently.

In Caroline’s chapters, we see a woman who has set much of her life and personality aside to make room for her husband’s very modest ambitions. The last straw for her is discovering that this husband has had a cliché-riddled affair with a co-worker. She decides to go on their trip to London alone, taking time to think about their relationship. After throwing out a couples-centric agenda and going mudlarking, Caroline goes to the British Library to learn where it might have come from. In chapters set at the end of the eighteenth century, narrated by the ailing apothecary Nella and the sprightly twelve-year-old Eliza, we get an intriguing look into a clandestine apothecary’s shop where only women can come to ask for a special remedy to give to a man in their life who needs (the client things) to be gotten rid of. Just as in Caroline’s chapters, we learn how Nella and Eliza came to be in Nella’s cramped, dusty room, surrounded by an awful lot of toxic substances. Both plot lines reflect on guilt, betrayal, and sacrifice—and how far someone is willing to go to “fix” a problem.

The biggest challenge, I think, in writing a split-time novel (best I can do for a name at the moment) is making sure that both halves are equally engaging. I’ve read books in the past where I was much more interested in one half and ended up skimming the other. Equally engaging doesn’t mean that the halves have to be the same; too much similarity can be a narrative trap. After a somewhat heavy-handed beginning, I settled nicely into both halves of The Lost Apothecary. Nella and Eliza’s half gave me a wonderful ethical dilemma to ponder as well as some nicely thrilling moments. Caroline’s half gave me a meditative rediscovery of the self and some nicely thrilling (to me) moments of research. This might sound mismatched, but the combo absolutely worked for me.

I think book clubs will like this one. Once the plots get rolling, it’s hard to put The Lost Apothecary down and there is plenty of food for thought here. I also think that Caroline’s plotline will leave some women cheering the protagonist’s decisions.

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

The Burning Girls, by C.J. Tudor

Chapel Croft, in rural England, is not her first choice for places to lay low but orders from the bishop send Reverend Jack Brooks and her daughter, Flo, from Nottingham to the hinterlands in C.J. Tudor’s chilling novel, The Burning Girls. This lightning-paced mystery sees Jack dealing with more-than-usually-suspicious rural people, a history of witch-burning, and a lot of buried secrets—while Flo meets a strange boy and has to contend with some nasty bullies. Readers who like their rural settings with a strong dollop of the sinister will like this one.

The Burning Girls races through its several plots mostly in scenes of dialogue. Reverend Jack knows that something is not right in Chapel Croft almost from the first moment, when she finds creepy twig dolls known locally as burning girls near the church soon after moving into the vicarage. Sure, the local traveling vicar and other upright members of the community tell Jack that this a venerable and harmless local tradition, but these dolls are just harbingers of what’s to come. Flo starts to roam the country with a new friend named Wrigley (though no one seems to trust this kid) only to find her own hints of evil. The interstitial chapters start to reveal the story of what happened to two girls who mysteriously vanished thirty years prior in a case that was never fully investigated. Oh, and there’s an extremely violent man on Jack’s trail, who is eventually revealed to be a big reason Jack is in hiding.

The Burning Girls definitely fits my criteria for overstuffed. (The ending is definitely a wild, crowded ride.) There are so many plots in this book! Chapters skip from one to another, each adding a little bit more to what we readers know about what’s really going on. What made this book more tolerable for me (I really don’t like it when books try to do too much and half-ass everything) was the wonderful character of Jack—I love a vicar who is more interested in actually taking care of a flock than in rigidly adhering to dogma—and that Tudor’s villains are just disturbed enough that they didn’t really need a lot of backstory to explain their behavior without tipping the balance into outrageous. Readers who want a lot of psychological depth should look elsewhere. Instead, I’d hand this to readers who want a fast, scary read with an original protagonist.

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

The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt

The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt, offers an original spin on the “you’re a wizard” genre of fantasy, in which characters are suddenly whisked out of their ordinary lives into a world of magic and danger. Hewitt pulls in Finnish folklore and transplants it to London (for mostly glossed over reasons) for her setting. She also grafts it on to her protagonist, Alice, who is suddenly informed that the birds she sometimes sees are guardians for people’s souls. This seemingly slight gift turns out to be a gamechanger in an ongoing war between a magical community, non-magical assassins, and a death cult.

Alice’s introduction to the magical world involves, essentially, two kidnapping attempts. One comes from a shadowy man, Crowley, who claims to want to keep her safe. The second comes soon after when a more clearly sinister man tries to grab Alice off the street while his accomplice pushes Alice’s best friend in front of a moving car. Crowley is able to help Alice escape to the sanctuary of the Rookery, a magical London made up partly of historical buildings lost to fire, bombing, or development over the centuries. I really wish that we had been given more opportunities to dive into this world’s magic but the plot never really pauses. Instead, Alice puts herself on a quest to save Jen from a coma, keep her parents safe, and find a way to disappear when this is all over. Meanwhile, Crowley clearly has ulterior motives for helping Alice but he so secretive that he ends up fouling his plans more than once when his secrets start to come out.

Alice is the opposite of the kind of protagonist I would be if I found out that magic was real. I’m a watch and wait type. Alice is an ask a few questions and barrel into the unknown sort of girl. To the exasperation of Crowley, Alice never seems to learn to hang fire and make a plan before getting herself into some kind of violent catastrophe that he has to rescue her from. I felt as weary as Crowley must have long before the end of the book; I really wanted to reach in and snatch Alice’s shirt collar more than once to slow her down.

The Nightjar is an overstuffed novel. I felt like the plot had a grip on my hand and was pulling me down a busy street while I wanted to pause and window shop. I wanted more history. I wanted more magic. I didn’t necessarily want the shoe-horned in romance plot or the multiple accidental betrayals. Seriously, there is so much in this book that I wonder if The Nightjar had originally been planned as two or three books. It would have made more sense, I think, to hold off on some of the plots (like the entire death cult and child of death thing) for later entries. Without those extra plots, I think the central narrative, the characters, and the setting would have had a chance to become a fully-realized, multi-dimensional story. On the other hand, if you want fantasy that doesn’t sprawl across so many books, The Nightjar might be a great choice for you.

The Last Garden in England, by Julia Kelly

In Julia Kelly’s novel, The Last Garden in England, the gardens at Highbury House serve as the setting for four different women finding love, a home, and beauty in three different time periods. Emma, in our time, has been hired to restore the gardens to their original state. During World War II, Beth and Diana find people to love. And in 1907, Venetia designs a series of gardens for the wealthy Melcourts. This book was like a bouquet, a spray of characters arranged to satisfy readers who love English country houses and unexpected love.

So much happens in this book that I can’t summarize it other than in broad strokes. The Last Garden in England is absolutely the kind of book that you have to just inhale, because you’ll want to know what happens to all the characters. All of the women in this book—Emma, Venetia, Diana, and Beth—share qualities that put me instantly on their side and had me rooting for their happiness. All of them are deeply independent, the kind of women who are used to going it alone against all challenges so that they can live the kind of life they want. Emma and Venetia are gardeners and won’t let anything stand in their way. Beth wants a homey life where she can put down roots. Diana wants to be the mistress of her own estate, free from the interference of in-laws and government dictates about how she can use her house and property. All of them are deeply caring and nurturing—although some of the women in this book would argue that they’re not good with anything other than plants. And all of these women are characters I’d love to make friends with.

All of the plotlines throw up challenges for the women to deal with. Some of the challenges are heart-breaking, but the hope that everything will turn out alright (and it does!) kept me rapidly turning the pages. Kelly never lets things get too easy for her characters, which makes all the conclusions feel earned. I love a happily ever after as much as the next reader, but I always feel a bit cheated if that ending arrives as a result of too many coincidences or if characters have to suddenly go against type. When that happens, I always wonder if the happy ending last past the honeymoon phase.

A lot of the books I read are grim and contain elements that I feel I have to warn other readers about when I recommend them. For me, The Last Garden in England is one of the rare books I would hand to any reader looking for a good read without any word of warning. As such, I think The Last Garden in England is an excellent choice after this annus horribilis. Characters we care about grow and find genuine happiness in beautiful gardens that will have the green thumbs among us writing down species names and googling pictures of plants. It is the best comfort book I’ve read in a long time.

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

The Liar’s Dictionary, by Eley Williams

Word nerds might already be familiar with the term mountweazel. A mountweazel is a fake entry put into dictionaries to stop people from copying and profiting off of someone else’s hard work. Mountweazels play a lot of different roles in Eley William’s clever novel, The Liar’s Dictionary. They act as metaphor as often as they appear as literal plot points. For me, the real fun in reading this novel was trying to work out which words were made up and which ones were real (if obscure) English words.

There are two plots in The Liar’s Dictionary. In the present, Mallory has an internship that managed to be simultaneously the world’s most boring job and the most alarming. She works at the remnants of Swansby’s publishing house. Swansby’s was once a rival to the great Oxford English Dictionary. They raced Oxford’s lexicographers for decades until World War I killed off their employees and took the metal from their presses. Swansby’s encyclopedic dictionary was sadly never finished. Decades later, the last member of the family ekes out a living renting out the more presentable parts of the building for events. Mallory is just there to answer the phone…and receive the daily bomb threat. Mallory is told that the calls come from someone upset about recent efforts to update Swansby’s definition of marriage, but she is strangely blasé about the calls—much to the alarm of her girlfriend. The other plot is set more than 100 years earlier, centered on lexicographer Peter Winceworth. Peter is an odd duck. He affects a lisp to annoy people (his boss sent him to an elocutionist) and he secretly makes up words for emotions and events that, ordinarily, can only be described in long phrases.

The mountweazels connect Peter and Mallory, although they don’t know who the other is. In the present, Mallory’s boss discovers the fake words in his efforts to digitize the dictionary. He puts her to work to try and find all of them. Peter never intended for anyone to find them. They’re just something he does while people talk over and around him. That faint connection offers a path to compare Peter and Mallory in their dead end jobs and their inability to move forward with their lives—as well as to meditate on the fact that all words are made up when you really think about it.

The Liar’s Dictionary felt undeveloped for me. This may be because the two protagonists have failed to launch, which definitely flavors the book. It might also have been because the mountweazels were little more than McGuffins. Perhaps it was also that the plots just ended (one in a twist I saw coming and the other with bizarre revelation) and we never got to see Mallory and Peter grow up. I wish I had had more time with this book’s words.

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

The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland

Trigger warning for brief description of child abuse.

When The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, opens a little more than a decade after bubonic plague ripped across Europe and killed between a quarter and a third of everyone who caught the disease. The little town of Porlock Weir and the nearby Porlock Manor have survived, but it’s clear that things aren’t back to the way they were before the Great Mortality. Labor is in short supply. The feudal lord is permanently absent. There aren’t enough clergy to go around. And, above all, everyone has a sharp eye out for strangers with signs of plague. The milk of human kindness has gone sour.

The Plague Charmer is narrated by a curious quintet of characters. First, there’s Will, who was brutally abused as a child to restrict his growth so that he could pass as a dwarf. Second, Sara is a housewife who worries about feeding and caring for her small family. Third is the sinister Matilda, a widow who frets more about her neighbors’ sins than the mostly-absent priest. Fourth, Luke is Sara’s oldest child and has to survive in the wide world after disaster strikes Porlock Weir. Last is young Christina, one of the few aristocrats in this story. Powerless Christina serves mostly as a view into events at Porlock Manor.

As it did in 1347-1348, bubonic plague arrives by ship. This time, however, it arrives via a shipwreck. Two children wash up on shore and, while Sara and her friends prepare the bodies for a Christian burial, it is discovered that at least one of them had full plague. The villagers try to quarantine Sara, her family, and a few other unfortunates who came in contact with the bodies, but it’s too late. People start to die within days. The priest flees with the church valuables and the Manor shuts its doors. Porlock Weir is on its own. To make things more interesting—as if they need to be more interesting—a survivor of the shipwreck offers the people of Porlock Weir a deal. If they agree to pay her price, the stranger known as Janiveer will drive out the plague. The adults know what’s coming. They survived the plague. They all have family members who weren’t as fortunate. But if the price is someone’s death (as they’re lead to believe) how can they sacrifice someone on the hope that the rest of them will live?

The Plague Charmer races along after the failed quarantine. Residents send themselves on hopeless quests. Luke runs into a small cult. Sara and Matilda fight over what happens next. Janiveer schemes. Will is constantly caught in the middle and blamed for everything that goes wrong, whether he actually did it or not. So much happens in this novel that Porlock Weir will never be the same. My summary here does not do justice to the packed plot or to the deep characterization that happens in this book. When the characters aren’t responding to the latest threat, they’re wondering about guilt, sacrifice, and what to believe in.

Karen Maitland is one of my favorite writers of medieval historical fiction. It’s clear that Maitland has done a lot of research—Sara’s chapters are headed by fish-based remedies, while Matilda’s begin with references to apocryphal medieval saints—but there’s so much grit that I could never mistake it for a sanitized version of history or courtly romance. Readers of this blog will also know that I love complicated, twisty plots and The Plague Charmer absolutely delivers. There’s so much dramatic tension in this book that the omnipresent threat of plague is almost superfluous to requirements.

I recommend this book for fans of dark history—but I might suggest that readers want until after the pandemic is over before reading a story set in another plague.

Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz

Susan Ryeland thought that she was finished with Alan Conway and publishing after the firm she worked for spectacularly burned down at the end of Magpie Murders. Moonflower Murders, by Anthony Horowitz, takes place two years later. Susan and her partner, Andreas, now run a hotel on Crete. Things…are not going well. The wifi and the electricity are on the blink. Guests run TripAdvisor scams. Susan and Andreas are too busy to do more than argue. When the Trehernes show up at the hotel with a strange offer that involves the deceased Alan Conway, it feels like Susan has been sent a lifeline.

Eight years before the events of Moonflower Murders, a man was brutally murdered at the Trehernes’ hotel. One of their employees was sent to prison. Sometime after that, Conway interviewed the employees of that hotel and wrote one of his celebrated novels featuring his signature detective. Years after that, Cecily Treherne (one of the owners’ daughters) read that novel and announced that the wrong man had gone to prison…only to disappear herself. The Trehernes have come to Susan, Conway’s editor, in the hope that she’ll be able to tell them what Cecily discovered in Conway’s novel. Susan accepts the job—and the £10,000 they offer—and heads off to Suffolk.

Moonflower Murders was a little slow to start. Oddly enough, I was more hooked when Susan started to read Atticus Pünd Takes the Case and I got to read it over her shoulder. I knew as much as Susan about the real murder and Cecily’s disappearance and, while Susan might have the edge because she knew Conway, I relished the challenge of trying to see what Cecily found before Susan did. The last third was electrifying. Once I got past the halfway mark, I couldn’t put Moonflower Murders down.

Really good mystery novels all teach us something, about human nature or crime. Moonflower Murders taught me how we can fool ourselves when we believe we know the facts. Sometimes these facts are a timeline that makes murder impossible. If the dog barked at this time and the phone rang at that time, how is it possible for any of the suspects to do the deed? Sometimes those facts are identities; we trust people when they tell us their names. Why would people lie about their names? All of the detectives (and me, the reader) beat our heads against those facts until a stray thought made us question everything we thought we knew.

Moonflower Murders is a challenging, exciting mystery novel, as long as you can get through the first few chapters while plot elements and characters slot into place.

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

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell

George Comstock is one of the most infuriating characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction (and I’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces). The protagonist of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying has been on the run from “money-culture” for two years. His “war on money” means that he quit a good job, took a poorly paid position in a book store, and spends most of his time counting up the change in his pockets and raging against aspidistras. The common houseplant symbolizes all the evils of selling out and making a living wage.

George’s war on money comes to a crisis in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He’s been muddling along at four pounds a week (about $1,400 a month in 2019, as far as I can tell). He can afford a room, cheap meals, and a few extras. Still, George constantly fulminates against the pressures of making money and respectability to his friend Ravelston (a rich man slumming as a socialist) and girlfriend Rosemary (who makes less than George but doesn’t complain). When he was a child, George saw his widowed mother and older sister slaving away at teashops to afford his school fees. The plan is that George will someday make good and their money troubles will vanish. Instead, George’s response to the plan is to run as far as he can in the opposite direction, like an angrier version of Bartleby the Scrivener.

After a windfall turns into a disaster that costs George his job and his room, he falls as far as possible without actually ending up in the workhouse. He works at an even worse bookshop/lending library and lives in a room infested with bugs and dirt, eating food so lacking in nutrition that he’s in danger of scurvy or pellagra. Only a surprising revelation near the end of Keep the Aspidistra Flying halts George’s deliberate downward trajectory.

Obligatory photo of an aspidistra (Image via Wikicommons)

I’ve seen quotes from Keep the Aspidistra Flying here and there. Its witticisms were what kept me going through George’s constant kvetching. I honestly don’t understand why Ravelston and Rosemary stick around. Ravelston’s motivation is tied up in his guilt at being rich while there is so much poverty in the world. He runs a literary magazine that seems to exist solely to funnel money to poor poets. Ravelston’s guilt is apparently strong enough to put up with George. Every time they get together, George and Ravelston do a delicate dance around who pays for the pints so that everyone saves face. The pints fuel George’s circular rants about the rat race and how he refuses to participate. Rosemary is amused by George, failing to realize that George isn’t kidding when he complains about, well, everything.

Curiously enough, I ended up enjoying Keep the Aspidistra Flying even though I loathed George and his bizarre codes of conduct. I knew that, eventually, George would have to wise up and realize that “money” has no idea that he’s waging war against it. The only thing he’s hurting is himself and Rosemary. No one gives a shit about George’s principled stance; he’s just being an idiot. The conclusion definitely makes up for everything that came before.