Conspiracy on the Western Front: From a Dark Horizon

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Review: From a Dark Horizon, by Luke McCallin
Berkley, 2021. 505 pp. $28

As summer parches the despoiled earth of northwestern France in 1918, young Lieutenant Gregor Reinhardt, Seventeenth Prussian Fusiliers, has fought both east and west. A blooded warrior who commands a company of men older than himself, he senses the cause is lost but fights hard because that’s what he must do, and because he’s loyal to his comrades.

Consequently, when a booby-trap explodes at a divisional staff meeting behind the lines, killing several senior officers, and a soldier he recommended for a battlefield commission is blamed for the deaths and quickly executed, Reinhardt can’t sit with this. Receiving tacit permission to investigate from a sympathetic colonel — not that he would have twiddled his thumbs otherwise — the nineteen-year-old lieutenant begins to ask questions.

No sooner has he done so than he falls into a rabbit hole of conspiracy and murder, with blood having blood to eliminate witnesses; sometimes, he’s the target. After all, he served on the Eastern Front, where he came in contact with Russian soldiers infected by defeatist, socialist ideals, and the protégé executed for the booby-trap explosion was known to be insubordinate, radical, and a malcontent. So Reinhardt’s the perfect fall guy.

Participants in the conspiracy, whose goal and breadth he can’t penetrate at first, appear to include very senior commanders, deserters, Bolsheviks, doctors treating shell-shocked soldiers, dissenters, and, pervading all, the frustration and anger at a war that continues to chew up and spit out lives, though there can be no hope of German victory. The narrative therefore makes an unusual coming-of-age story of a young man trying to live morally where few, if any, morals exist. You may also read the novel as a labyrinthine thriller or mystery, with qualities of each, which will keep you guessing until the last page. But from whatever standpoint you approach it, From a Dark Horizon is first-rate First World War fiction.

Start with Reinhardt, who, despite his experience and responsibility, is still just an adolescent, truculent and earnest, occasionally pompous when he spouts principles, a character whose actions don’t always match his good intentions. Human, in other words. Most others around him have their facets too; I particularly like his sergeant, fiercely loyal but also brutally honest, and a mercurial captain who seems wildly unpredictable and who Reinhardt thinks is on his side but can’t be sure.

McCallin also displays an impressive command of the battlefield, rest area, home front, chain of command, you name it. No detail escapes his eye, and everything feels authentic, something rare in First World War novels. Consider this passage, one of many that bring the scene alive while also conveying feeling:

There were convoys bearing food and others bearing straw and hay. There were water convoys, and convoys of medical supplies, and long trains of horses and mules being driven up as replacements for those at the front. Troops hunched forward, each man heavy with equipment, shovels and helmets or metal spikes or rolls of wire clanking on their backs. Officers rode in limousines, and huge steam-driven tractors dragged monstrous howitzers. The noise was deafening, and the air was choked with dust. Sometimes singing would intermittently drown out the neighing of the horses and the clatter of harness and the bone-deep throb of motors, but the songs were few and the men marched to a different, darker tune than they had marched to in the spring of that year.

McCallin, who follows the history faithfully, re-creates the mood of both army and home front. He conveys the weariness for sacrifice that seems to have no purpose, the grumblings of revolution, and the political maneuvering to cast blame once the war finally ends. I admire this panorama very much, both for its historical grasp and adept fictional portrayal.

These German sailors, among others, mutinied at Kiel in November 1918. The uprising, which ignited unrest around the country, led within days to the armistice (courtesy German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I like the thriller/mystery aspect as well, though several twists toward the end feel rather convenient, with fortuitous arrivals of powerful characters. One such character in particular, who seems to slide in and out of his ability to process what’s happening around him, is too helpful to the story as well. Even so, “no — and furthermore” bleeds through the pages, for whenever Reinhardt discovers the next link in the chain of conspiracy, that person typically winds up dead.

Enough bodies fall (more from foul play than combat) to staff a platoon, and the Byzantine links among them necessitate frequent recapitulations, usually in the form of Reinhardt explaining what he’s learned, and how. From a Dark Horizon, though its pages turn rapidly, can be talky at times.

This volume marks the last in the wartime series about Reinhardt’s exploits. But in his afterword, McCallin promises that his hero will have further adventures in the 1920s. I’m ready.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

My debut novel, Lonely Are the Brave

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I’m delighted to tell you I’ve realized the dream I’ve nurtured for more than a half-century: In April 2023, Cynren Press will publish my novel, Lonely Are the Brave. So, starting next week, in addition to my regular book reviews, I’ll periodically post about the novel’s historical background, with occasional sidelights as to how I incorporated those facts or events into the narrative — or tried to and failed.

But for today, let’s stick with the premise:

In 1919, scandal stirs Lumberton, a small (fictional) logging town amid the evergreens an hour outside Seattle: War hero Rollie Birch, whose wife died while he was overseas, turns at-home father; and Kay Sorensen, the timber baron’s daughter, dares defy her politician husband to pursue a business career.

Almost overnight, Rollie goes from town celebrity to pariah. Nobody will talk to him, gossips snicker that his infant daughter isn’t his, and even his beloved sister wishes he’d give up his crazy idea. Meanwhile, Kay fears her tyrannical husband, running for state legislature, will make her leave the job she loves, and wonders if his bizarre public attacks on Rollie, who served in his platoon during the war, somehow explain what’s gone wrong in her marriage.

Discreetly, she begs Rollie to tell her what her husband did during the war, to which he reluctantly agrees, provided Kay reveal what she knows about his late wife’s possible infidelity.

But trading wartime secrets has unexpected consequences, not least for fragile, lonely hearts and cherished beliefs—and the ensuing public storm threatens to destroy Kay and Rollie both.

……………………….

More to come.

Korean Saga: Beasts of a Little Land

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Review: Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim
Ecco, 2021. 399 pp. $27

In 1917, seven years into the Japanese occupation of Korea, a hunter tracks a tiger because its skin is worth a small fortune, and he hopes to save his starving family from death. But he nearly perishes in the snow during the hunt, and again when he runs into a party of Japanese officers intent on bagging a trophy, any trophy. However, when he saves one officer from the tiger — without killing the beast or even holding a weapon — the officer spares his life.

Meanwhile, a woman sells her eleven-year-old daughter, Jade, to a high-class courtesan, who accepts the girl despite her unprepossessing looks and character.

From these two events, whose aftereffects play out over decades, comes a saga about wealth and poverty, freedom and depression, and, perhaps most important, the ability (or lack thereof) to see beneath surfaces or deal with emotional vulnerability — indeed, any emotions at all. Along the way, the novel mirrors the story of Korean independence, emphasizing the twenty years between the tiger hunt and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1937, though the narrative continues to 1965.

Japanese poster or postcard, artist unknown, from the 1930s, which reads, “Japan-Korea. Teamwork and Unity. Champions of the World” (courtesy http://populargusts.blogspot.de/2010/07/ reunification-assimilation-and-three.html, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Besides Jade, her mentor, and the two courtesans-in-training among whom she grows up, there’s an orphan boy who lives in the street, whom Jade befriends, and a couple of businessmen and a writer-turned-politician. Jade crosses paths, and sometimes more, with all of them. Each represents a particular emotional type, whether the violent man who expresses himself through his fists, the blueblood conscious of his rank and importance, and so forth.

I’m not the first critic to point out that Kim’s Japanese officers summon up a stereotype. They’re practically stick figures whose stunted limbs consist of greed, sadism, the conception of honor (read: pride), and utter incomprehension of human feeling. On the surface, they’re almost out of the wartime propaganda film. But Kim has two goals, I think, which grant the portrait a purpose.

First, she’s writing for an audience that might have heard of the atrocities in Nanjing in 1937 and maybe the so-called comfort women conscripted for military brothels, but for whom Japanese brutalities in Asia are largely a blank — and her story begins decades before them, anyway.

Second, the officers’ incapacity to view people, places, or objects from any perspective other than utilitarian extends to many of the Korean characters too, especially the men. But several women buy into this philosophy as well, assuming that once they lose their looks — in their thirties! — they’ve nothing left, and their lives are over. In that way, the Japanese officers’ fatal flaw, lack of heart, is on the same continuum as everyone else’s. As a result, few characters in this novel are happy or even know what that might look like, except possibly in retrospect.

The narrative worldview may take getting used to; so does the prose style. At first, the author’s manner of explaining everything — landscape, actions, feelings — struck me wrong. I admire her writing for its simple elegance, certain passages of which are beautiful without calling attention to themselves, so I wondered why she told everything rather than show it. But I stuck with it, and I think I see what she’s after, a panoramic discourse akin to Tolstoy or, as with the opening scenes depicting the tiger hunt, a legend. See what you make of this typical passage, which parses the thoughts of SungSoo, a businessman, on finding a former lover talking to a onetime friend whom he looks down on, as news of the emperor’s death has reached them:

Once the soju [liquor] had circulated through their bodies, each began to feel more comfortable — not about the emperor’s death, but the situation among themselves. It is always excruciating to discover that one’s distinct connections, who ought to belong firmly and chastely in separate spheres of one’s life, are somehow acquainted, and perhaps more intimately than one would like. Each of them keenly suffered from this, though SungSoo in particular took this as an insult and a betrayal. His good breeding and the soothing effects of soju were the only things that kept him from succumbing to the jealousy that burned deeply in his chest.

You may like this style, or it may feel distant, but if you read Beasts of a Little Land, get used to it. As with many sagas (not my usual fare), the attempt to make everything larger than life can seem stilted, especially when the crossing of paths feels contrived, or scenes unfold according to a predictable pattern. I wish too that Kim or her editor had weeded out phrases like blow off, reach out to, okay with, and playbook, when we’re supposed to be reading about early twentieth-century Korea.

But taken in its entirety, Beasts of a Little Land has something going for it, not least history that may be unfamiliar.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Unusual Friendship: A Net for Small Fishes

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Review: A Net for Small Fishes, by Lucy Jago
Flatiron, 2021. 331 pp. $27

London, 1609. Anne Turner, mother of six with a much older husband and heavy debts, looks to increase her income from “fashioning” for wealthy ladies, her sideline in medicinal concoctions being less lucrative. Indeed, it is as a fashion consultant that Katherine, countess of Suffolk, has summoned her to dress her daughter Frances, countess of Essex. Anne’s task: to get Frances out of bed, ready to please her husband, Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex.

But the earl is not easily pleased, even by the most beautiful, vivacious young wife in England. Only an empty-headed bully, coward, and brute with multiple axes to grind could treat Frances Howard so badly she’d refuse to leave her bedchamber. But Essex is all that, and more: He’s impotent and can’t consummate the marriage, which only adds to his shame, prompting him to abuse his nineteen-year-old bride even further.

Moreover, there are politics involved, as always among English aristocrats. Frances Howard is one of those Howards, the family with which Tudor monarchs had to reckon, as do the Stuarts now, in the court of James I. And Essex’s family is the Howard faction’s sworn enemy.

So Mistress Turner, seamstress and herbalist, is sailing in deep, choppy waters, but she’s ambitious. She has claim to social respectability, through this or that marriage or cousin, and she’s always liked finer things, of which she’s had a taste. Consequently, though she resents being ordered about by Frances’s mother, as if she were a servant, the young countess draws her in, and not just as a means for advancement.

Anne Turner, artist unknown, 1615 (courtesy http://www.kateemersonhistoricals.com/TudorWomen5.htm via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

A most unusual friendship develops, as Frankie, as she’s known to intimates, relies heavily on Anne’s guidance. Impulsive, passionate, and unguarded in tongue, the neophyte noblewoman requires a steadying hand, whereas Anne sees in her protégée a kindly soul craving warmth and protection. To be sure, the commoner also revels in court intrigue and the display of wealth and pomp to which she has access through Frankie.

But Frankie’s no easy charge to look after, and she has dangerous tastes, in particular a deep, powerful attraction to Robert Carr, the king’s favorite. All eyes, and not just those of Frankie’s boorish husband, are watching — and Anne is dragooned into acting as go-between.

The narrative therefore intersects with that of The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle’s take on the Howard-Carr intrigue. But where Fremantle fixed on the cut-and-thrust of court politics and the tempestuous romance, Jago, though she pays attention to those facets of the story, concentrates on the friendship between the two women. She casts her narrative as a feminist tale, a woman wronged by her beast of a husband; has she really no recourse?

Jago’s authorial hand is remarkably sure, especially in a first novel. From the beginning, the reader will admire the prose, descriptive and emotionally evocative at once, as with this early passage, in which Anne contrives to dress Frances appropriately, yet with an eye to the young woman’s own advantage and image to portray:

My hands darted like a bird pecking seed, working needles and pins, laces and points, circling Frances like a whole flock of maids though I was but one woman. My deftness pleased me, as if the pins and laces grew from my own body as silk comes from the spider. I enjoyed the feel of the sharp metal broaching cloth made on looms in foreign lands, by hands as quick and sure as my own. It pleased me to sculpt fine materials into the shapes in my mind’s eye. To the bodice I tied sleeves, pulling them into sharp peaks above her shoulders. From the shambles of this whipped child rose a castle, every swag and buttress a testament to her worth.

With such keen observation, the novel renders the manner in which the court honors or breaks reputations, and what happens as a result. There are a few decent people about, but they must be watchful, for no one falls faster or harder than the lucky person elevated in esteem, then dropped; and courtiers take delight in revenge, whenever they can. Though court life is a standard in historical fiction portraying this era, I nevertheless note Jago’s persistent eye to the human cost, as with the innocent offspring of the figures cast down.

I’m not sure I find as much meaning in the feminist aspect of Frances Howard’s predicament as Jago intends, maybe because, as the daughter of one earl and wife of another, our countess is hardly representative. (I find more of that thematic substance in Anne’s story.) I see the issues involved with Frances — it’s hard not to — just not the claim of deep significance. I’m also not persuaded of Anne Turner’s venal side, because we’re told it rather than shown.

But all the same, A Net for Small Fishes is a splendid novel, evocative and moving, and I highly recommend it. Few authors can bring off literary thrillers, but Jago does. She’s an author to watch.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Tragic Destiny: Four Treasures of the Sky

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Review: Four Treasures of the Sky, by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Flatiron, 2022. 336 pp. $28

The first, arresting sentence of this utterly compelling novel refers to a kidnapping, but the story’s much larger than a single person. It’s a tale of good versus evil, mostly the latter.

Despite being named for a tragic heroine of legend, Daiyu has a happy childhood in 1880s China. Growing up in a fishing village six days from the port of Zhifu, she has firm but doting parents who teach her to love nature and respect others, and to expect such respect in return. With that nurturance to guide Daiyu, life holds great promise:

Our village sat next to a river that fed the ocean and in those early years, I walked along the riverbank often, following the black-tailed gulls until I reached the ocean’s mouth. I hugged the water’s edge, counting the riches that it held: life, memory, even doom. My mother spoke of the sea with romance, my father with reverence, my grandmother with caution. I felt none of those things. Standing beneath the gulls and swifts and terns, I only felt myself, one who held nothing, carried nothing, and offered nothing. I was simply beginning.

Unbeknownst to Daiyu, these are dangerous times, and one day, her parents flee without warning, leaving her in her grandmother’s care. Soldiers come looking for the fugitives, which bewilders Daiyu; what could her parents have done wrong? And soon, it’s too dangerous for Daiyu to live in the village, whereupon she’s sent to fend for herself in Zhifu.

Perhaps that seems improbable, but what follows is all too nightmarishly real. For a while, she finds comfort and stimulation as a servant at a calligraphy school, and in learning that art, she learns about life. In that way, you might call Four Treasures of the Sky a coming-of-age novel, though it’s different in tone from any I can think of.

Her kidnapping interrupts her education and self-discovery, and much else. Kept for a year in captivity, where she’s taught English, she’s sent overseas to a brothel in San Francisco. The author may pull a punch once her protagonist arrives in America, but rest assured, Zhang doesn’t protect her characters. Daiyu also has further misadventures in Idaho, where she tries to pass as a man. Throughout, she experiences or observes the brutalities women suffer at the hands of men, or each other.

Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper ran this cartoon in April 1882, commenting on the Chinese Exclusion Act of that year (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But dressing and acting as a man offers only a veneer of protection; as a Chinese person, she’s subject to constant harassment, insult, degradation, and violence. “No — and furthermore” thrives here in full force, so that whenever a hint of kindness, generosity, or warmth reveals itself, you have to wonder how long it’ll last.

To survive, Daiyu, now called by other, invented names, retreats within her tragic alter ego, or, to be precise, literally and figuratively swallows her and holds her inside. What a remarkable metaphor, an attempted antidote to the bitterness that life forces down her throat. But the alter ego also represents the self that Daiyu may never show anyone, for fear of exposure and punishment. As a result, she won’t let herself trust or love, so that dreadful as her physical sufferings are, the emotional deprivation is that much worse.

Zhang’s prose, as quoted above, penetrates surfaces to illuminate the shadows or currents beneath, one pleasure of Four Treasures of the Sky. Besides the passages on calligraphy, I enjoyed one describing the differences between Chinese and English; the latter, soft-pedaling unimportant words while emphasizing others with vigor, “is a matter of timing and chaos.” Another passage precisely links male power to physicality, reflected in how men move and carry themselves. Like so many parts of the novel, it’s beautifully observed without a hint of self-consciousness.

Mostly, though, Zhang wants to redeem the largely forgotten history of American bigotry and violence against Chinese. In that, she performs a great service, in general and particular. In her afterword, she says that Trump’s lies blaming China for COVID energized her, in part, to write her story.

I warn you, however, that if you read this brilliant, disturbing book, be prepared to see humans at their worst. All the white characters are racist, and few of the Chinese have much to recommend them, either. Yet Daiyu’s constant struggle over whether to live fully, and how, prevents Four Treasures of the Sky from becoming a polemic or a tract. To me, the social and political observations feel integral and crucial to the narrative.

This is an important book.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.

Small Town, Big Corruption: The Gods of Green County

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Review: The Gods of Green County, by Mary Elizabeth Pope
Blair, 2021. 240 pp. $26

One hot day in 1926, the sheriff shoots Buddy Harper to death in Paradise, Arkansas, and claims self-defense. Since the sheriff practically runs Green County, and since a raft of witnesses testifies that Buddy threatened him with a crowbar, acquittal seems certain. Nevertheless, the attorney the sheriff has hired to defend him, Leroy Harrison, nearly withdraws from the case. His client, though smoother than silk, seems utterly unscrupulous, and it’s suspicious how the witnesses’ statements tally so closely in wording.

However, Leroy keeps the case in the end. His wife has just had another miscarriage, the great pain of their lives together, and he can’t handle the turmoil that would surely result if he disappointed the sheriff. But there are compensations, for subsequently, Leroy’s elected judge. And that’s part of his problem, for his conscience tells him that’s wrong, especially when he sees how the sheriff wields power, in ways both petty and devastating.

Nobody suffers more than Coralee Wilkins (née Harper), who sees visions of her late brother on the street, her porch, and the grocery. To her husband, Earl’s, dismay, she becomes more religious as a means of coping. The preacher she chooses is a corrupt, money-grubbing type who encourages his congregants to handle poisonous snakes.

The symbolism here might be heavy-handed: the snake in Paradise. But Pope has re-created a dirt-poor cotton town, with its intricate links forged through lifelong relationships and resentments. The result is a terrific story, a moral tale about power, loyalties, mental disturbance, and corruption. Although I dislike her intended conclusion, she brings her decidedly imperfect folk to life, and it’s a loving portrait she portrays of a time and place gone by.

Told through three different voices — Leroy’s, Coralee’s, and Earl’s — the narrative opens with Coralee’s psychotic delusion:

Truth is, I always could see things. Not every little thing all the time, but the full flower inside the bud of a rose, the fire inside a new green leaf that wouldn’t show until fall, the old man inside the boy selling newspapers on the street. Sometimes I even knew the future. One summer when a hard frost killed the crops and everybody was hungry, I had a vision of Johnny Wilcox bringing us a wheelbarrow full of turnips, and sure enough, he showed up the next day. Another time, I saw Laverne Bishop take up a snake even though she’d never trusted the Lord enough to test her faith before, and the very next Sunday she did. Those times, Mama called me her little prophet. Most of the time she said it was Satan working through me.

Earl, who works for a pittance at a cotton gin, doesn’t know what to do, as Coralee’s illness progresses and her behavior endangers herself and others. He’s a good soul, the salt of the earth, and illiterate, as she is. It’s a poignant portrayal, and you feel for both of them. “No — and furthermore” propels the story, as every move the three narrators make backfires. This small town, where everyone’s known each other forever, has its staunch loyalties that help people get through but also its hatreds and suspicions.

The earliest known working cotton gin, Burton, Texas, built in 1914 (courtesy Jim Evans, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the one hatred Paradise lacks is racial. No Black characters live or work here, apparently, nor do any of the three narrators even refer to Blacks. The omission, though it simplifies the storytelling and allows the focus to remain on the principals’ concerns, makes me wonder why Pope chose that approach. I hope it’s not to protect her characters, so they don’t seem “dislikable” — a cardinal sin in book publishing, these days.

Several crucial scenes take place in a bar, and that too tests belief — not in the latter part of the novel, which occurs twenty years and more after the shooting, but in 1926, when Prohibition ruled the land. Along the same lines, somehow World War II escapes notice or mention, which gives the impression that Paradise must be hermetically sealed.

Finally, the narrative takes a couple too many twists in its latter stages, not always believably. And I think Pope wants the reader to see Leroy, who can’t leave the shooting or the sheriff’s abuses of power alone, as the villain here. He’s a whistleblower who neglects his family, yes, and not all his reasons for pursuing his cause are altruistic. But should he really leave well enough alone? And as the only character who stands up to evil, he has my admiration — especially if the alternative is just to keep his head down and tend his own garden.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Manipulated and Discarded: The Peculiarities

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Review: The Peculiarities, by David Liss
Tachyon, 2021. 325 pp. $18

London, 1899. Thomas Thresher, twenty-three, nominal scion of the noted banking family of that name, should consider himself fortunate, with a bright future to look forward to. But Thomas feels no hope for anything, present or future. His cruel, tyrannical brother, Walter, the bank’s governor, insists that Thomas serve as a clerk, performing pointless tasks, from which he learns nothing, nor is he meant to, a Dickensian touch. Further, Walter demands that he marry a young woman he’s never seen — a Jewess, no less, an idea that repels him.

But Thomas finds it hard to feel sorry for himself, or to feel much of anything, because Walter has manipulated him all his life and discarded him as worthless — except to do his bidding, as with the strange marriage, for no reason Thomas can fathom. He’s allowed no will or character of his own, and you can see the effects.

What’s more, London itself has changed. Violent fogs that slither like giant, amorphous reptiles bludgeon people to death. Thomas has seen this, but there are other horrors he’s only read about:

The more lurid newspapers published stories of vampires and werewolves, of women giving birth to rabbits, and houses rendered uninhabitable by ghosts. He has read of people possessed by spirits and living men whose own spirits have become trapped in horses, in furnishings, in articles of clothing. There are horrible transformations and mutilations. Things that should not be, if these stories are to be believed, have become not quite commonplace but hardly rare.
Thomas read it all with a fair amount of skepticism until the first leaf sprouted below his right nipple.

These abnormalities and others go by the name of Peculiarities, and in stereotypical British fashion, nobody talks about them. Nobody in polite society, anyway, for the worst afflictions beset the lower classes predominantly, a concept Thomas is loath to accept when his purported fiancée, Esther Feldstein, tells him so.

But you know that Thomas must take her seriously, sooner or later, not least because the bank seems implicated in some way — the impenetrable institution, a Dickensian theme. At the same time, he can accomplish nothing unless he takes himself seriously too, a difficult task when he has been ground under his family’s heel.

His progression makes terrific reading; I’m reminded again of Dickens, say, Pip in Great Expectations. You don’t often see a thriller with such an intricate, forceful character arc, let alone a story that also has enough “no — and furthermore” energy to power a small city. Plenty happens in The Peculiarities, but this is a character-driven novel that explores every emotional transition, and that’s why you care.

Kabbala, a mystical belief system within Judaism, figures in The Peculiarities. Here, a kabbalistic representation of the Tree of Life (courtesy Thomazzo, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The story invokes magic, as you might have guessed, and the plot revolves around the power it confers. But though characters attempt to cast spells, the magic here, as Liss states in the text and repeats in an afterword, doesn’t operate in defiance of natural laws. Rather, it depends on natural laws “previously hidden or generally unknown.” The distinction will become clearer if you read the novel, which I recommend, but I’ll give you one hint. Thomas was on the way toward becoming a first-rate mathematician at Trinity College, Cambridge, until Walter forced him to quit his studies. The skill comes in handy.

Note too the context of the so-called Peculiarities. That the London fog has become deadly violent, instead of the passive killer known to history, suggests environmental disaster writ large. That it attacks poor neighborhoods more often than others reflects a fact reckoned with today but not during the Victorian Age, and that Thomas at first refuses to accept the evidence rings all too true.

How ironic that he’s turning into a tree, as though the forests are taking vengeance for human depredation. And the births of “rabbit children” represent two themes, natal defects from industrial poisons and the attack on reproductive rights. Surely, Liss intends to criticize capitalism in its unbridled state—consider that the central institution here is Thresher’s Bank.

At once a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and historical fantasy, The Peculiarities has much to offer. The plot twists like an eel, sometimes in melodramatic fashion, with one incredible revelation after another. But the prose is beautiful and lucid, and the characters never strike attitudes, as they might in a full-fledged melodrama. Esther proves more than a match for Thomas, one of several friends with whom he never would have bothered had he not been afflicted and chosen to embark on a journey of discovery.

My regular readers know I avoid historical fantasy, but such is my admiration for Liss’s previous books, most notably A Conspiracy of Paper (capitalism, again), that I grabbed this novel off the shelf. The results confirm my trust, and I suspect they will earn yours.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Washington, 1942: Louise’s War

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Review: Louise’s War, by Sarah B. Shaber
Severn, 2011. 194 pp. $28

American involvement in World War II is six months old, and everybody and her sister flocks to the nation’s capital to find a job. Louise Pearlie, whose husband has died years before and can’t bear to remain in rural North Carolina, has brought her excellent secretarial skills and work experience to the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence organization. Gossip has it that the Allies will invade North Africa within months, hence the OSS search for maps of the coastline and experts who understand the beaches.

A 1943 poster for the Office of War Information by George Rapp (OWI poster 55, courtesy Library of Congress; public domain)

One such authority is Gerald Bloch, a French Jew married to a school friend of Louise’s. From what little news she’s received, Louise gathers that Gerald and Rachel are stuck in Marseilles, while reports say that the Vichy government has made sure that no Jews will receive exit visas. Deportation looms, and Louise, who owes Rachel a huge debt, wishes she could help.

Theoretically, the OSS could claim that Gerald Bloch would provide necessary information concerning the upcoming invasion. But the file on him goes missing during the confusion ensuing from the fatal heart attack suffered by the director of Louise’s section. At first, she thinks nothing of this, but soon, at tremendous risk, she sets out to discover how and why a sensitive dossier could simply vanish, and whether recovering it would save the Blochs.

It’s an excellent premise, if a mite dependent on coincidence, but Shaber’s narrative has a lot going for it. For starters, I like how she’s drawn Louise. Growing up poor and churchy, Louise doesn’t quite know what to make of the big city, where old values get shunted aside in the business of making war. The tremendous crush of people in a hurry and under pressure, with ambition and money to spend, offers temptations she’s not used to, but which attract her. Her parents want her to remarry, but she enjoys her independence, even if she wonders what it would feel like to have the financial security and creature comforts she’d never afford on her own.

That said, Louise also knows that many, if not most, men expect women to keep quiet and use their brains only to help solve male problems, for which, of course, they’ll receive no credit. But her common sense doesn’t prevent her from wanting what might not be good for her. I like that complexity.

The other winning facet of Louise’s War is the atmosphere. Whether it’s fabric shortages, the bus company’s refusal to hire Black drivers, people trying to get around the sugar ration, or the habit of traveling GIs tossing letters out train windows, knowing that someone will stamp and mail them, Shaber knows her ground and deploys details with skill. Here, Louise rolls her eyes at the portrayal of women in a popular magazine:

In its cheerful stories women skipped off to work in full make-up with neatly coiffed hair pulled back in colorful do-rags, carrying lunch pails full of healthy home-made food. Their overalls didn’t get dirty no matter how filthy the job. If they weren’t married with an obliging mother at home caring for their children, they were engaged to a shop foreman or a military officer. None of them were war widows or lived in boarding houses or had to park their children in crowded day nurseries.

Given that keen eye and grasp of psychology, I’m surprised to stumble across a cardinal error. Louise’s first-person narration works just fine, but, for some reason, Shaber shoehorns brief, usually first-person, sections belonging to minor characters, ostensibly to reveal information Louise couldn’t know. Since these look as clumsy as they sound, you have to ask, Does the reader need to know? I doubt it.

Pretty much everything would have kept until Louise manages to discover it, and her ignorance could have heightened the tension, complicating her attempts to parse conflicting evidence. As it is, the story telegraphs answers to a couple major questions when, with little effort, the author might have shaded the account of events to create doubt and keep the reader guessing along with Louise.

Less glaring to the general reader, though unfortunately common in fiction, the Jewish characters don’t feel genuine, which turns them into a narrative convenience. I also object to how certain authors consistently say “Nazis” to identify those who invaded other countries and committed mass murder and expropriation, as though “ordinary” Germans distanced themselves from those crimes.

I can’t help think that the author, or her publisher, wants to separate people we like from those we can hate with abandon. Too bad. Similarly, the novel presents a likable, admirable protagonist, born and raised in North Carolina, who befriends the Black women servants in her boardinghouse without a second thought. That seems a little easy.

Nevertheless, in other ways Louise’s War brilliantly presents a city during conflict, a heroine whose voice draws you in, and a mystery that will keep you turning the pages.

Disclaimer: I obtained by reading copy of this book from the public library.

Food for the Soul: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen

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Review: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, by Annabel Abbs
Morrow, 2021. 363 pp. $17

Eliza Acton, a respectable brewer’s daughter, has brought a second volume of poems to her publisher, Longman of London, only to be told that ladies shouldn’t write poems. (Read: The first book didn’t sell.) Not only won’t Mr. Longman publish her manuscript, he asks for something almost as déclassé, a cookery book, and tells her not to bother him again until she’s finished it.

He’s supposing that Miss Acton wouldn’t actually cook from her own recipes, for the year is 1835, and as Abbs makes clear, middle-class women aren’t supposed to show appetites of any sort. Miss Acton’s poetry, though hardly risqué in any tangible sense, is about longing rather than daffodils, intense feelings rather than Christian uplift. How wanton!

Longman’s assuming that, as managers of respectable households, ladies maintain a staff of servants, and the cook and scullery maid do the real cooking. He never considers the result, inevitably awful, nor does anyone else — meat roasted to the consistency of leather, like as not curried, with half-cooked potatoes drowning in grease.

Illustration from Eliza Acton’s Private Cookery for Modern Families, 1845 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Except Eliza, who has spent time in France and knows what food should taste like. But her mother will not hear of her besmirching the family escutcheon. Daughter must not descend into the kitchen herself and sully her hands, educated for finer pursuits, with anything so coarse a task as satisfying human appetite.

Worse, the family escutcheon has already suffered — Papa’s business has gone belly-up, and he’s fled to France, leaving wife and children to fend for themselves and pretend to the world that he has died. Since two sisters of Eliza’s have become governesses, a comedown necessary to prevent further financial embarrassment, and a third has married and produced a house full of children, Eliza has no room to divert from the path chosen for her.

So it is that mother and daughter rent a large house in a town near a watering hole and prepare to take in boarders. But that’s such a comedown too that Mother schemes to have her spinster daughter, already in her thirties, married off — and if, perchance, a wealthy widower came to stay at the boardinghouse while taking the waters, why, that would be perfect.

Part of Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen involves the mother-daughter power struggle, and whether daughter will find her voice to resist. And it’s not sure she wants to, because she recognizes that marrying a rich man would solve a lot of problems. But the larger story revolves around her insistence that she do the cooking, so that she may prepare a book for Mr. Longman and satisfy the poetry she finds in food. To assist her, she hires Ann Kirby, a local girl, and when Eliza discovers that Ann too finds poetry in food, a friendship and collaboration develops despite the social gulf between them.

What a charming story, told alternately from Eliza’s and Ann’s points of view. I confess I have a soft spot for Eliza Acton, whose cookbook provided me years ago with historical evidence for my book on the social history of the potato. But aside from Acton’s significance, as the story of a middle-class woman’s choices in Victorian England (few) and moral and emotional dilemmas (many), the novel flies off the page.

And she’s not the only point of focus, for Ann faces a set of problems far more complicated and harrowing than her employer’s, though cut from the same cloth. For instance, Ann’s mother suffers what we would now recognize as early-onset dementia, while her father is a disabled veteran.

Another pleasure of Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen is the prose, which conveys the place and time, yet also inner lives:

The eggs are still warm and stuck with feathers as I count them from the basket. I pour grated sugar from the earthenware jar, then take a freshly whetted knife and pare the rind from two lemons. The world slips away. I feel my eye, my nose, my palate yielding, and I think how satisfying it is to scrape at a lemon, to lose myself in its sharp bright song.
I have started to see poetry in the strangest of things: from the roughest nub of nutmeg to the pale parsnip seamed with oil. And this has made me wonder if I can write a cookery book that includes the truth and beauty of poetry.

On the downside, I find Eliza’s mother wanting depth. I wish the narrative revealed her thwarted desires, so that she came across as more than a corseted autocrat obsessed with reputation. You also sense that Eliza has a secret, and I think Abbs might have revealed it earlier, allowing it to complicate the emotional narrative, instead of concealing it for shock value later. The plot point it eventually provides delivers less than promised, and at the expense of fuller character development, including the potential to deepen Mother’s.

All the same, Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen makes pleasant reading, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Reconstructed Mystery: The Unknown Woman of the Seine

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Review: The Unknown Woman of the Seine, by Brooks Hansen
Delphinium, 2021. 261 pp. $26

This much is true. Sometime during the late nineteenth century, a young woman drowned in the Seine, and the gypsum death mask created to memorialize her face became famous. What a face it was — serene, people said. Others spoke of her innocence, her beauty. The poet Rilke wrote of her deceptive smile and what knowledge might lie behind it. Artists studied the re-created face as a model; copies of her likeness could be found in Parisian studios and academies. Nabokov had a character write a poem about her. Camus, it was said, showed her off at parties. Man Ray photographed her.

Photograph of the famous death mask, ca. 1900, photographer unknown (courtesy http://totenmasken.com/totenmasken/html/body_galerie.html, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

To all, the dead woman’s mask represented a quality that touched them, so they invented her story, a biography, a mystery, and how she might have met her end. That background brings us to the current novel, beguiling, occasionally baffling, which offers a coherent explanation, as tense as any whodunit and as meticulously observed as any narrative of any kind.

Hansen’s story begins with a scene in a morgue, November 1889, after the unknown woman’s body has been on display for a month — yes, they did that, apparently — after which the mask maker plies his craft. It’s a prologue, therefore unfortunate by nature, and a bit confusing, at that. But Hansen skillfully rewinds the intrigue from there, chiefly through the eyes of Émile Brassard, a gendarme who’s had a checkered career, partly because his brilliance upsets people, a circumstance the author understates with deft hand.

In fact, if any single word describes The Unknown Woman of the Seine, it’s understated. I admire novels in which nothing is predictable, yet whose randomness derives entirely from characters with opposing goals (not authorial convenience). I also admire those novels that ask me to draw inferences rather than explain themselves, which involves me in the narrative and lets me meet the story halfway, rather than have it spooned into my mouth.

That said, Hansen demands a lot of his readers, and I’m not always up to it. A dose of bewilderment works wonders, though, for you share Brassard’s curiosity and puzzlement. He first sees the woman in the woods far from Paris, while she’s burying a corpse — and none too deep, because subsequently, the wolves get to it easily. Brassard might arrest her, but he can’t, because he’s applying to be reinstated in the gendarmerie after military service in Indochina, so he’s not officially on duty. Moreover, he’s traveling to his reinstatement hearing, so his time isn’t his own.

Consequently, he must walk a tightrope, following the woman while covering his tracks from both the participants and his superiors. Hansen does a marvelous job integrating his hero’s employment troubles with the mores and politics of the time, folding that into the detective’s quest to figure out who the woman is and why she was burying the dead man. If she killed him, as is likely, Brassard assumes there are extenuating circumstances, and he wants to know the story. So do you.

However, he, and the reader, must have infinite patience before things start to make sense. Also requiring patience are references to images of Buddhist philosophy, which go above my head, and which seem — to me, at least — to have little relation to the story. No doubt I missed something.

But the reader who can stick it out will be well rewarded, especially those who like dogs — Brassard’s is quite the canine investigator, perhaps a little too good to be true, yet their relationship is marvelous. The journey the narrative follows could not be more beautifully rendered, whether Brassard’s thoughts, the landscape, or the city of Paris, particularly the presence of that newly built tower, Eiffel’s monstrosity, as some think of it.

Here, the detective considers his reinstatement, as variable and hard to fathom as the heavens themselves:

If the sun said, All is well, all will turn out in due time, the moon knew better. The moon said, Beware. The moon shed light on the darker and more difficult truths, and he could feel them this evening as he wrote — the low clouds of doubt drifting into his brain, or looking like wolves just behind the tree line, grinning and shimmering with the knowledge that his confidence was without ground; he was fooling himself; the matter of his reinstatement is not nearly as simple or assured as he liked to think.… There were men out there who doubted him, and who made it their business to undermine him.

Such magnificent writing rolls easily into your mind, creating inner life, physical setting, and tension, all at once. The narrative’s final pages lack the clarity I would have liked, but the essentials are there. The manner in which Brassard — and Hansen — pull together the evidence makes for a thoroughly satisfying and remarkable tale of mystery.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.