The First Day of Spring, by Nancy Tucker

Trigger warnings for child neglect.

I’ve always thought one of the biggest questions our species has had to wrestle with is forgiveness and unforgivableness. Forgiveness is hard. The worse the crime, the more impossible it seems to forgive the perpetrator. It’s little wonder that, at least in Western culture, we talk about things that are unforgivable. We struggle to design just solutions that punish the criminal and make appropriate reparations to the victims. In fact, we seem to leave punishment to our governments and atonement to religion. I’ve even struggled to write this opening paragraph because I just lack the vocabulary to be precise about my thoughts. Ever since I finished Nancy Tucker’s searing exploration of forgiveness and unforgiveness The First Day of Spring, I’ve been thinking hard about whether there are such things as unforgiveable crimes and just punishment. This novel is an amazing exploration of impossible questions.

Chrissie, the protagonist of The First Day of Spring, starts her crimes early. On the first page of the novel and at the shocking age of eight, Chrissie strangles another child to death. This is the kind of crime that shocks us. The victim is a child. The perpetrator is a child. We don’t have laws for this kind of situation. And it’s rare enough that this kind of crime just short circuits us. It’s only after several chapters from Chrissie’s perspective that we start to learn how a little girl became “a bad seed”—a term that a neighbor uses and Chrissie adopts. The way that Chrissie has grown up is another crime. Her mother is extremely neglectful. Chrissie is left to fend for herself, down to creating strategies for cadging food out of mothers in the neighborhood and getting extra milk at school. The only time she gets attention from any adults is when she misbehaves. It doesn’t take a semester of Psychology 101 to know what this teaches Chrissie to do. None of this excuses what Chrissie does, but it helps to explain it a little.

Chrissie’s chapters alternate with chapters narrated by a woman named Julia. Julia is Chrissie, more than a decade later. We learn early on that Chrissie was sentenced to a Home, a secure group home for juvenile offenders that rehabilitates more than punishes. After her release, Chrissie is given a new name and a chance to restart her life. By the time we meet her again, Chrissie/Julia has had a daughter. Molly is Chrissie’s entire reason for living these days, and she is terrified that social services will take Molly away. These chapters fascinated me Chrissie has changed so much that she hardly seems like the same person. She has been completely transformed by years of enforced boundaries, good nutrition, and maturity. Instead of acting out of rage and impulse, Julia is afraid of not following the rules. She emotionally punishes herself by avoiding happiness and good things in life. Her “punishment” wasn’t the kind of punishment that one grows to resent. Instead, Chrissie’s time in that Home saved her from being a monster for the rest of her life.

But, as we read Julia’s chapters in The First Day of Spring, I was constantly thinking about the rightness of Chrissie’s punishment. Nothing that could’ve happened to Chrissie that would truly punish her for what she did. Chrissie’s extreme hunger and the parental neglect are complicating factors. They did so much psychological damage to Chrissie that her legal defense could probably have made a good case for Chrissie being not guilty by reason of insanity. When I read Julia’s chapters, I found myself so sympathetic to the transformed character that I felt that any further official punishment would be like punishing the wrong person. The First Day of Spring is the kind of novel that I wish I had read with others, either friends or a book group. There is so much to think and talk about here that I would love to know about what others think. I’m not a parent. Would I think differently of Chrissie/Julia if I had a child of my own? I’m also not a psychologist or social worker, so I don’t know if Chrissie’s situation would cause the behaviors seen here. Could Chrissie be more a product of nurture than nature? What on earth can or should be done with child offenders?

All of this is handled in solid prose that doesn’t belabor its themes. The dialogue feels realistic and brutally honest. There are so many ways that The First Day of Spring could’ve gone wrong. That it didn’t just makes this book even more spectacular. Tucker is deft hand at treating heavy topics with a light touch. I can’t say enough good things about this novel. If you’re the kind of reader who can handle insoluble, emotionally wrenching topics, I think you’ll love this book.

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

Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford

For me, reading Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, was a strange juggling act. On the one hand, the premise of the book got me thinking about all the millions of lives that might have been if they hadn’t ended because of World War II. Where would we be if those millions had been able to finish their fourscore years and ten? On the other, I needed to stay focused on the rather ordinary lives of the protagonists who—in one version of history—were killed by a V-2 rocket. The juggling act made me constantly question Spufford’s choices. Why these five people? What are we to learn from seeing scenes from their possible lives over the decades? Is there a lesson to be learned from a book that always prances away from stating its message?

One day in 1944, a V-2 rocket landed in Bexford and killed several people. Or it didn’t. Spufford takes us down the path that might have been if Jo, Val, Ben, Alec, and Vern has survived. Sisters Jo and Val go down their own roads. Val becomes enthralled by a violent man. Jo resolutely does not get too entangled with men, instead becoming a singer and songwriter who never quite makes it. Alec marries young and works as a compositor for The Times before technology makes his job obsolete. Ben lives the kind of marginal life that often befalls people with severe mental illness. Vern is an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer with a deep love for opera. The lives of these five characters diverge after school, apart from one brief, accidental meeting between Vern and Alec. Only two things seem to connect the five apart from their near/actual death by V-2. First, they all eventually end up back in Bexford, London. Second, they all have a propensity for getting lost in moments. Sometimes, it’s a perfect moment of light in the middle of a soccer match. Other times, it’s a wonderful moment of musical beauty. Yet others, it’s a horrible moment of inescapable violence.

So what are we to learn from these five? One idea that struck me partway through Light Perpetual is that, of the many millions who died during World War II and the Holocaust, most of them (statistically speaking) were ordinary people. Like the characters of Light Perpetual, most of the dead would probably never have left home. Many would have followed their parents’ professions. Many of them would have tried to make it big and fails. A smaller number would have had to deal with mental illness. Sure, there would have been artists, scientists, writers, geniuses, and people who would have changed the world. Most of the lost were ordinary—but that definitely doesn’t mean that their deaths don’t diminish the rest of the world. If anyone asks me what Light Perpetual is about, this is probably what I would say. But I also have another answer, one that is literally ephemeral. Over and over, we see characters getting lost in the moment. And what is life, after all, but a series of moments that later become memories? Spufford gives this quintet of dead/alive people their moments back.

I don’t know if I liked Light Perpetual, exactly. I certainly found it interesting. But I also found it frustrating because it never really resolved to my satisfaction; it just kept going in narrative-convention-defying directions. This isn’t to say I disliked the novel or that I think it’s a bad novel. Light Perpetual, rather, is unusual, thoughtful, occasionally profound, and often poignant. This is definitely a book for readers who like their historical or literary fiction intelligent and unconventional.

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

Silence is a Sense, by Layla AlAmmar

When someone doesn’t speak, when they cut the rest of us off from their opinions and histories, they still can’t avoid being talked about. The narrator of Layla AlAmmar’s thoughtful novel Silence is a Sense, lives a silenced life in a housing estate in London sometime after civil war broke out in Syria. She won’t tell anyone her name. She certainly won’t tell anyone about the terrible things that happened to her and her family between Syria and England. And yet, this book is loud with all of the things the narrator refuses to say. It’s also loud with all the assumptions that people make about the narrator, about Muslims, about things happening in other countries, and about other people’s behavior. I was completely gripped by this book.

These days, the narrator makes a bit of money writing for online publications and lives on funds she receives as an asylum seeker. She has a flat in a cluster of buildings where everyone can see and hear everyone else’s business. The narrator is no exception. She constantly observes her neighbors, who she names for one of their habits. There’s the Juicer, who has an obsessive exercise routine and diet. There’s the No-Lights Man, who likes to roam around his apartment in the dark unless he has company. The Russians (who might not actually be Russian) shout at each other and bang pots and pans on the other side of the shared wall. I was strongly reminded of the very beginning of Rear Window, although this book never turns into a mystery.

The narrator’s sharp observations of her current circumstances are punctuated with memories of things she very much does not want to recall, so we only learn about her flight from Syria in snatches. Her editor is always asking for those memories. Josie publishes the narrator’s essays about the treatment of refugees and immigrants, civil war, and the like, but she really wants human interest pieces from events in the narrator’s life. I can understand why the narrator resists. First, writing would mean remembering. The narrator copes with past trauma by not thinking about it. Second, what would publishing her memories really achieve? Would it change international policy? Would it change her neighbor’s minds? Or would it be something a reader downs with their cup of coffee in the morning and then moves on from?

The only thing that draws the narrator out of her cocoon is a growing conflict brewing at a nearby mosque. The imam is doing his best to create a good relationship with the community. Most people are fine with this, but there’s a loud group of racists who are very much Not Happy. The escalation of angry words and fists brings the narrator’s memories to the surface. At the same time, she bumps into No-Lights Man (who knows she has been observing him and everyone else in the housing estate). He rescues her more than once when the memories threaten to swamp the narrator. He also wants the narrator’s memories—this time to help inspire people to fight for refugees and tolerance for immigrants. The last third or so of Silence is a Sense shows the narrator struggling with the choice to speak again or remain silent.

Silence is a Sense is a fresh, original take on the refugee experience. It may be ironic for a book about a character who refuses to speak, but this book has so much to say about everything. I loved it, even though it was full of hard things. The narrator’s silent voice asked questions I’d never thought of before, shared perspectives I didn’t even know existed, and did it all with intelligence and a dash of snark. I can’t say enough good things about Silence is a Sense.

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

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

One small part of my job as a librarian is to help explain what words mean, especially for the many students at our university who don’t speak English fluently. Once, I helped a student improve his vocabulary by trying to explain words from Dr. Seuss. (It’s really hard to define onomatopoeia without resorting to just making sounds.) Doing this made me realize that there are a lot words I think I know—I understand them in context—but I can’t define them. So I marvel at lexicographers who can capture the meaning of words in just a few sentences. The main character of Pip Williams charming, thoughtful novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, is a word nerd like me, but she has a gift for succinct definitions. This talent was nurtured by her father, one of the editors for the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, a dictionary that attempts to capture the meaning of every word in English from the first recognizable utterances to the present.

Esme’s mother died when she was very young. From necessity, her father took her to work with him in Sir James Murray‘s Scriptorium with the other lexicography worker bees as they endeavor to find, define, and explain every single English word*. While her father works, Esme plays under the table, growing on a steady diet of words. She becomes so fascinated, in fact, that she gets in trouble for stealing slips with definitions and quotations because she can’t help but “collect” them. She eventually grows out of this, comforted by the fact that her father and Sir James eventually give her little jobs she can do to help the dictionary.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is the story of Esme’s unusual life. As a young girl in Victorian England, she would normally be expected to marry and be a housewife. Her love of words and the indulgence of the adults around her, however, give her an alternative. This alternative gives her the freedom to keep collecting words. Instead of pilfering slips, Esme hunts out words that won’t be included in the Oxford English Dictionary (at least the first, somewhat prudish edition). One of the rules that govern whether or not a word will be included is that it must have examples in print. Without the internet and social media to capture words that wouldn’t make it into formally published words, a lot of words were going to be left out. So, in her free time, Esme interviews sex workers, the poor—almost exclusively women—to make her own small dictionary. She keeps up her side project through the years, through the rising suffragist movement and World War I, before finding a new use for words to help soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I very much enjoyed The Dictionary of Lost Words. There was so much there for me to love: an empathetic word nerd of a protagonist, a dash of conflict, a love story, and the Oxford English Dictionary. This novel is a bit of a slow burn, but I didn’t mind since Esme has such an interesting life. I also liked that the plot never quite went where I expected it to. There were enough surprises to keep this book from getting too academic, if readers are worried about too much linguistic talk. This was a delightful read.

A quotation for the word “flood” created for the Oxford English Dictionary (Image via Wikicommons)

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

*One of my linguistics professors once told me that English has more words than any other language in the world. I have no reason to doubt this, since not only do English speakers like to steal words from other languages at every opportunity, they also like to coin new words and modify existing words like there’s no tomorrow. No wonder the Oxford English Dictionary is only published online now. I can’t imagine how many volumes it would take to print out.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale

In the fantastic (in both senses of the world) The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale brings us a strange case from the past. (I really liked The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher). This book sees Summerscale diving into the archives of Britain’s interwar spiritualist and paranormal societies and the news to tell the story of Alma Fielding. In 1938, Fielding called the police to report that something was throwing and breaking things in the London apartment she shared with her husband and son. The police couldn’t help. There wasn’t anyone to arrest. But Nandor Fodor wanted to investigate. Fodor was not a detective—at least not a police detective. At the time of Alma’s haunting, Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research. He believed that the culprit was a poltergeist.

In another example of the serendipity that seems to dog my reading choices, I recently listened to a series of episodes of You’re Wrong About, a podcast that debunks moral panics and fraud. In the relevant episodes, hosts Michael Hobbs and Sarah Marshall do a very deep dive into Michelle Remembers, by Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. That book, which helped spark the American Satanic panic of the 1980s, shows a troubling, unethically close relationship between a patient and a therapist in which both parties encourage each other in creating a series of false memories. The relationship between Fodor and Fielding is not that close, but there are some very interesting similarities. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shortly after Fielding and Fodor met, Fodor invited her to the Institute so that he and other “psychical researchers” could figure out if Fielding had a genuine poltergeist or if she was just a very good fraud. In the 1920s and 1930s, spiritualists popped up across Great Britain like mushrooms after a rain. The appalling losses of World War I lead many surviving relatives to seek out mediums who could help them talk to their dead. Fodor did a fair amount of debunking for the Institute, but he truly wanted to believe that Fielding and others represented real evidence of the supernatural and life after death. At first, there is no sign—as far as Fodor can see—that Fielding is using any of the known tricks that fake use to making objects appear to fly and break, rap at tables, etc. It’s only several months into the investigation that Fodor sees slight signs that Fielding is doing all of the weird poltergeist-y behavior, although it was hard for me to wrap my brain around how some of the events were achieved.

Which brings me back to Michelle Remembers. Fodor does, in spite of his desire to believe, begin to understand that Fielding wants the investigators to keep their attention firmly fixed on her and the “manifestations.” The investigators try increasingly elaborate methods to catch Fielding red-handed and her poltergeist’s actions escalate from flying crockery to visits from rapacious ghosts over the course of months. When Fielding appears to slip up, Fodor reluctantly turns from paranormal explanations to psychoanalytic ones. (Sigmund Freud makes a brief cameo late in The Haunting of Alma Fielding.) Instead of diving wholeheartedly into the supernatural, Fodor starts to ask questions that make everyone uncomfortable. He also starts to ask himself questions about whether he, Fielding, and the other investigators were just committing a big folie à deux (or whatever is the right number in French for everyone).

Just like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, The Haunting of Alma Fielding reads like I was dropped into another place and time. With a light hand, Summerscale shares the fruits of her research to recreate the intellectual and emotional settings of the cases she delves into. I have learned so much from reading Summerscale’s books. As a bonus, there is a lot of humor in this book. More than once I would laugh out loud at the absurd situations Fodor would find himself in in his quest to find proof of the paranormal. Summerscale is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction authors.

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

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.