historical fiction · review

Ex-Libris, by Ross King

480712Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.

There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.

As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.

A 1471 Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, published by Marsilio Ficino, which is referenced frequently in Ex-Libris.
(Image via Wikicommons)

There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.

Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.

literary fiction · review

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald

41015154In a depressed town on England’s eastern coast, Florence Green is determined to open a book store. She has the building. She has the stock. Unfortunately, she also has a very powerful woman as her enemy. In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, we watch Florence experience the highs and lows of being a book peddler.

Old House, in the middle of Hardborough, has a reputation for being haunted. So of course this is the place Florence chooses for her shop. After she finagles a loan out of a patronizing bank manager, it seems like the bookshop is a go. But then Florence is invited to the Stead, the home of the local gentry. Violet Gamart informs her that she plans to turn the Old House into an arts center.

The Bookshop is full of Florence and Violet’s battle of wills, as well as the relationships Florence builds with the local curmudgeon, a hilariously capable but no nonsense 11-year-old assistant, and others. This book had the potential to be another tale of bookish warm fuzziness, but the fighting between Florence and Violet gets very serious when Violet calls in the lawyers. Violet refuses to cede ground to Florence, no matter how much good Florence’s books do for people.

This novella ended up being a lot sadder than I was expecting, even with the poltergeist. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know what to expect from Fitzgerald; perhaps this is what she does in her books. It’s certainly not as saccharine as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I love anyway) or The Little Paris BookshopReaders who want a happy ending should look elsewhere. Readers who want a more realistic quirkily bookish novel may enjoy reading about Florence’s triumphs and travails.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

What’s Left Unsaid, by Deborah Stone

Trigger warning for child abuse and rape.

41941906Sympathy for fictional characters is often a matter of perspective; we tend to sympathize with characters whose past and point of view we know the most about. Because we understand them, we can forgive. How else could the Dexter series have been so popular? But in Deborah Stone’s unsettling family novel, What’s Left Unsaid, all the sympathy I felt for one character was weighed against the emotional damage she inflicted on all the other characters. Is it possible for someone to be so awful that it doesn’t matter how much they went through? Is there an amount of trauma that means someone gets a free pass to be horrible for the rest of their lives? These are callous questions, but something about the central figure in this book meant that I had to ask.

What’s Left Unsaid is narrated by three family members. Joe, the family patriarch and former broadcasting superstar, chimes in from the afterlife. He passed away 15 years before the book opens. Sasha, his daughter, is a frazzled mother trying to reconnect with her teenaged and newly moody son, Zac. Annie, Sasha’s mother and Joe’s wife, is fading into dementia and physical frailty. Sasha and Annie have reached a kind of detente since their most contentious years, but when Annie slips a family secret loose to her grandson, Zac, he starts stirring things up to find out what his parents and grandmother have been hiding from him.

Through Sasha’s point of view, we learn about a hot-and-cold childhood. Her father delights in her. Her mother insults her constantly and tries to push her aside at every opportunity. Because Sasha grew up in the 1960s and 70s, the adults in her life were more likely to downplay Annie’s corrosive effect on her daughter. Through Annie’s wandering memories, we slowly learn why she is so lacking in empathy and mothering skills: an abusive foster mother who “cared” for Annie after she’d been evacuated to the countryside for the duration of World War II, parents who didn’t know how to help a child with post-traumatic stress disorder, plus one more outrage before she became a mother.

It isn’t hard to see why Sasha is so anxious. Annie was a nightmare of a parent. Sasha doesn’t know what made Annie the way she is. But I have to wonder, even if Sasha did know, does that make up for the terrible things Annie has said and done to her? Now that Annie is losing her memories, reconciliation is impossible. And without the hope that Sasha and Annie might make peace, it’s left to us readers to answer that question on Sasha’s behalf. I’ll admit that I’m very torn. Annie had a horrible life before she married Joe. She suffered more than anyone should ever have to. But then, being abused as a child and a young adult can’t mean that Annie has carte blanche to behave the way she does for the rest of her life. I don’t have much to say about Joe’s story line. It didn’t add much to the novel for me other than a sense of futility as Joe fails his family repeatedly and briefly hogs the spotlight near the end of the book.

What’s Left Unsaid is a hard read. The occasionally clumsy, unnatural dialogue doesn’t help. I’m curious about what other readers will think about this book. Given that I’m a judgmental reader (in the sense that I so often read books like a judge, apportioning blame and guilt left and right), I suspect that my reaction to this book may be other than the author intended. That said, I will give What’s Left Unsaid credit for asking a question I had never considered before. I’m fascinated by the idea that sympathy and forgiveness might have limits and where those limits are. Readers who are similarly fascinated may find food for thought here. Readers looking for a psychological portrait of a family should probably look elsewhere unless they enjoy really troubled mother-daughter stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 28 October 2018.

nonfiction · review

How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, by Ruth Goodman

38212150I strongly suspect that How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman, was born from all of the research Goodman did that didn’t make it in to her previous book, How to Be a Tudor. Goodman packs this book full of advice from etiquette books, seasoned with cases of bad behavior that ended up going to court. I wish there had been more of the court cases because I found them fascinating and because they’re much better indicators of what people were actually doing instead of what they are told they ought to do.

How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England contains chapters on swearing, mockery, table manners, dress, bodily functions, drinking and more. In each chapter, Goodman breaks elements of (bad) behavior down into specific no-nos. For example, the chapter on mockery contains all sorts of advice about how different people stood or walked, immediately followed by tales of how people would parody the way a soldier strutted or a minister “halted.” In the chapter on violence, Goodman quotes an etiquette manual for young men and boys that tells them to be many but to avoid murdering people. Then Goodman recounts a series of stories of violence that would be farcical except for all the manslaughter.

The best parts of this book, for me, were the small slices of life provided by the court cases. Goodman gives us the names of these briefly infamous Elizabethans (and Jacobeans, since this book also covers the early Stuart era), their shenanigans, and the insults that caused them. Etiquette manuals are interesting in their own right. They’re full of complicated instructions for how to do just about anything, from dressing to blowing one’s nose in the morning to how to bow to anyone on the social spectrum. But the court cases appeal to my overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude by showing us how it all fell apart in real life. No one can be on their best behavior all the time, after all.

Goodman’s angle in showing us Elizabethan manners in terms of actively pissing people off perfectly serves its purpose of showing readers just how complex it all was. I was a bit lost at times as she described the various styles of bowing or the correct way to stand because I wasn’t sure which joints we were supposed to bend. But by looking at good behavior through bad behavior, I got a very clear sense of how Elizabethan society might function day-to-day. I also learned that I would be spotted as a time traveler in an instant because I would probably slip up and tell someone to sneeze into their elbow if they didn’t have a handkerchief (considered disgusting) while being appalled by people spitting all over the place (this grosses a lot of Americans out). Readers of social histories will enjoy this a lot, I think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

contemporary fantasy · horror · review

In the Night Wood, by Dale Bailey

37570474The house that the Haydens inherit at the start of Dale Bailey’s chilling In the Night Wood does not have the best reputation. Not only does it border the Eorl Wood, a swathe of primeval forest that the locals warn everyone away from, but it also burned to the ground in the 1840s and housed the last reclusive member of the Hollow family. Oh, and sometimes young girls go missing. But that’s still in the future of the grief-stricken Haydens, who arrive looking with varying levels of optimism for a chance to start over after the death of their only child.

Erin is devastated after her child’s death and is only really handing on with pharmaceutical help. Her husband Charles, however, has his academic interest in Caedmon Hollow to keep him busy. Hollow was the Victorian author of a fairy tale-like story that is always described as “not appropriate” for children because of its grimness. (Pun.) Not much is known about Hollow, so if Charles can deliver a biography full of new and hopefully interesting material, it might help him resurrect his career.

What neither of the Haydens counted on was the Eorl Wood. Both of them start to see people in the woods. Erin thinks she sees her lost daughter. Charles has flashes of the Horned King, a figure from Hollow’s book and Celtic mythology. Neither of them says a word to the other. While they play an uncomfortable dance of politeness for the servants and the locals, Erin starts to draw the Horned King and get lost in depression while Charles hunts down clues about Hollow’s life.

I was much more interested in Charles’ plotline than Erin’s. At times, I thought Erin’s character was shoved to the side while Charles and the local historian got to dig through old papers and actually get a handle on what might be going on. There was plenty of archival goodness and plenty of literary allusions to keep me entertained during Charles’ sections. Unfortunately, Erin is left to suffer from grief and depression for most of the book. She sinks deeper and deeper and her part of the puzzle goes to waste in the overall plot. I would have liked In the Night Woods a lot more if Erin’s character and plotline were more developed.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.


A Double Life, by Flynn Berry

33286623Flynn Berry’s A Double Life is based on the unsolved mystery of Lord Lucan, who was accused of murdering his children’s nanny and attempting to murder his wife before disappearing, never to be seen again. In this novel, daughter Claire Alden (not her original name) continues to investigate her nanny’s murder, her mother’s assault, and figure out where in the hell her father disappeared after that terrible night. The novel flies along, giving us answers that followers of the Lord Lucan case will probably never get.

Decades after the night her mother saw her father attack the nanny and then try to kill her, Claire is a doctor in London. Her brother is an opioid addict and insurance adjuster. Their mother too them to Scotland and changed their names to help them all try to start over, but it’s clear that it’s impossible not to be affected by what happened. Claire is probably the best functioning member of their little family and even she’s been tormented by phobias and her obsession for answers. She also seethes with resentment towards her father’s rich friends, who seem to have carried on with their privileged lives while they’ve had to scrimp and save.

While Claire gathers clues in the present, we get brief flashes of the night her parents met and how they came to be married. He was a rich heir to an earldom. She was a waitress. It should have been a romance novel, not something that murderinos online devote so much attention to that they’ve created websites dedicated to the crime. It shocks Claire that the people online know what they had for dinner before the murder and assault, but she can’t remember.

A Double Life races towards its conclusion, but I think the book is best when it plays with us with the clues Claire gathers. After her father’s disappearance, his friends muddied the waters by hinting that Claire’s mother might be suffering from post-natal depression or that she might be abusive. There is so little physical evidence from the crime scene that there is room to doubt. I tried to keep an open mind, though I struggled because a) I tend to believe the person who was injured and b) I instinctively loathe rich entitled people. When the answer arrived, even though it made sense, I was a little unsatisfied with the conclusion of the book. It all just happens too fast for me. All that lovely doubt dissipates in a flash and I felt like I witnessed a tent collapsing.

literary fiction · review · short stories

Judge Walden: Back in Session, by Peter Murphy

38651108To paraphrase Oliver Wilde, the law is rarely pure and never simple. This is certainly true of the stories in Peter Murphy’s Judge Walden: Back in Session, his second collection of stories to feature the conscientious and thoroughly decent Bermondsey judge. In each story, we see Judge Walden wrestle with tricky points of law and do battle with the civil servants who constantly look for ways to cut costs to get “value for money for the taxpayers.” Best of all, these stories have a gentle humor to them that I think would make a brilliant BBC series.

A couple of favorites from this collection include:

“Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.” The case before the bench in this story involves a market stall seller of vintage goods who is accused of selling bootleg records. The accused maintains that the records are authentic recordings by a local jazz band. The Crown contends that they’re a bad rip off of an American jazz group. There’s a reason why plagiarism and copyright cases are all decided on an individual basis, both in the United States and in Britain. They’re fiendishly complicated and sometimes comes down to the smallest details. The comic turns the case takes reminds me a bit of an actual court case from the US, where musician and songwriter John Fogerty played his songs back to back in the witness stand to convince a jury that he didn’t plagiarize himself.

A British judge’s wig (Image via Chancery Wigs)

“Mortifying the Flesh.” This story is a little less light hearted than the others in the collection because of the nature of the case. It is the kind of case that the newspapers drool over. A vicar has been accused of using church funds to pay for his sessions with a dominatrix. His defense is that the sessions are a form of devotion, because he’s having someone flagellate him. Even though it’s not as amusing as the other stories, I really liked the tricky points of law that Walden has to think his way though. There are laws that can guide him, but they’re out of date and/or too blunt to use in this particular case. We tend to forget that the courts are where laws are put to the test, to see if they really work and can deliver justice in a nuanced world.

The stories are longer than the usual length expected; they might almost qualify as novelettes (if I knew were the cut off was). Because they’re longer, we get treated to more development of plot and character than we usually get in short stories. In fact, the stories contain enough content, I think, to support a limited run series. There are several scenes that I would love to see performed, especially the ending of “Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.”

I loved the legal issues, the skirmishes with the civil servants, and the humor that threads through these stories. I enjoyed this book so much that I want to go back and read the first collection of Judge Walden stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 October 2018.