Star-Crossed Love: The Glittering Hour

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Review: The Glittering Hour, by Iona Grey
St. Martins, 2019. 468 pp. $29

It’s January 1936, and nine-year-old Alice Carew misses her mother terribly. Mama’s away in Burma with Papa, who has mining interests there, and the family’s Wiltshire estate, Blackwood, feels like a prison to Alice. An artistically precocious child with no head for or interest in reading or mathematics, Alice has no allies in the house save her beloved nanny, Polly, who can’t protect her from Grandmama, as starchy and cold an aristocrat as ever graced England’s shores.

The old lady has never liked her grandchild, censors the girl’s letters to her parents, and even denies Alice the colored pencils Mama bought for her. Good grief. Yet despite her grandmother’s and father’s opinion that Alice has a second-rate mind, the girl sees plenty, including their lack of love for her — but not the reason for it. Therein hangs a tale.

However, all this is prologue to Mama’s back story. Selina Carew, née Lennox, was a Bright Young Thing in the Twenties who burned the candle at both ends. With a passion for expensive amusements and a horror of boredom, Selina and her blue-blood friends cut a swath through London at breakneck speed, awash in champagne and jewels, tossing out arch bon mots and trying to decide whether this or that costume party or dance will be too unbearable; really, isn’t there anything better to do? To her family’s horror, the scandal sheets eat this up, from which Selina derives some satisfaction.

Selina’s no airhead (though I reserve judgment on her friends), because if she were, The Glittering Hour would have a flat, spoiled-brat heroine and require a seismic change from her that would strain credulity. Rather, she has deep conflicts, from which she’s trying to hide. She represents the upper-class cohort that survived the Great War and who dash from party to party so as to conceal the pain of loss. But Selina feels it, can’t help it; like so many women of all social classes, she lost a beloved brother at Passchendaele. What’s more, much as it hurts, she refuses to believe that all joy must end, though admittedly, she overdoes it. Worse, none of that may be spoken of:

Seven years on from the armistice and the scars of the war were still visible everywhere. One got adept at looking past them, or through them, or pretending they weren’t there at all. One got on with things in the best way one could; there was always someone worse off, like the man selling matches, or Lady Renshaw, who had lost all three of her boys… One could never complain about one’s own loss. Selina understood why her mother had buried hers in the deepest recesses of her heart and hardened her face against the world. It was her way of coping, of Getting On. But it was a sad legacy for a boy whose smile could light up a room.

Selina meets Lawrence Weston, an artist who makes his living painting portraits based on photographs for war-bereaved families, but whose real passion is photography — which few people consider an art form. Little do they know. For extra money, Lawrence takes pictures of the rich and famous making public nuisances of themselves — he knows about Selina Lennox before they meet — but he prefers photographing miners, the men selling matches, whatever social commentary his lens seeks out.

William Monk’s 1920 engraving of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, a memorial to the war dead. The wooden structure was later replaced in stone (courtesy http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/ via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I understand what Grey’s trying to achieve by starting with Alice, but that approach has its flaws. Though Alice’s predicament squeezes my heart, as it’s meant to, that’s not where the richest material lies. I prefer Selina’s inner struggle as a Bright Young Thing and her relationship to Lawrence, which has so many social markers, the pair might even inhale and exhale differently, for all I know. The class barrier to romance is hardly new, but Grey’s rendering takes on particularity, because she grounds it so thoroughly in active physical detail. It’s not just Lawrence’s shabby clothes or Selina’s accent that set them apart, though those matter and are what onlookers see and hear; it’s how the physical details reveal these two characters’ different worldviews.

On the minus side, the story hinges on two secrets, neither of which is particularly hard to discern, and the narrative has its melodramatic moments, especially toward the end. I wish Grey didn’t resort to telling, rather than showing, emotions in certain key moments— what a shame, for such an astute observer — and the resulting shorthand phrases sometimes go thump. Further, though Grandmama’s portrayal will curdle your blood, she’s that real, Alice’s father seems like a shirt stuffed with papier-mâché.

Even so, The Glittering Hour finds something new to say about the decade after the Great War, and Selina and Lawrence are appealing characters. It’s worth reading for that, if not for more.

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

The Food of Love: The Pasha of Cuisine

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Review: The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygin Ersin
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers
Arcade, 2016. 281 pp. $26

Once upon a time in Constantinople, a cook wangles a job at the sultan’s palace so he can spring the woman he loves from the harem. Is he dreaming? Does he really think he can infiltrate that inner sanctum, forbidden to all males save eunuchs, and spirit his lover away, let alone live to tell about it?

Not exactly. And the manner in which the cook — who has no other name — sets about his quest makes for a highly entertaining (and mouth-watering) narrative, recounted in a style reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. As you may imagine, “no — and furthermore” resides here, the penalty for failure is unthinkable, and there is considerable back story.

Turkish food, from central Anatolia (courtesy KayaZaKi, via Wikimedia Commons)

How does the cook, whom many call the Pasha of Cuisine, a title earned through talent and study and testament to his unique powers, come to be where he is? No one knows. What sorcery informs his skill, or, for believers in rational thought, why do his dishes have the effects they do? No one can figure that out either, though they try.

So there are two mysteries here, the man and his plan, and both depend on cooking. I’m all for that. And since it’s a cultural given that a Pasha of Cuisine cooks not only for himself or his patron or employer, but to raise the level of taste and appreciation throughout the land — so much so that harvests become more bountiful — the cook’s gift has a public meaning. Much rests on that, for his ability, his presence, open doors closed to ordinary chefs, let alone the story itself, wouldn’t work without that instant entrée.

That talent cuts two ways, however, for, as with anyone who works at the palace, you take your life in your hands:

Like the other [palace] gate, the Gate of Salutation was a passage, but much longer. The light at the other end seemed to be far, far away, as though symbolizing the plight of those who passed through. Living at the palace was a journey, the end of which was unknown as you walked through the Gate of Salutation. That held true for everyone, from the youngest page to His Highness the Sultan himself. You walked toward the light, yet it seemed that you’d never reach it. Your life spilled onto that infinite road moment by moment, hour by hour, and day by day; you were filled with the fear that you may be plunged into darkness at any time. And in the end, your life would be extinguished either at the hands of an executioner or by a natural death, at best becoming a few lines in a dusty history book.

Like all heroes on a quest, our cook has a tragic past, which influences what he has learned and how he has gone about it. Among his lessons are the six layers of taste; the ineffable names of flavors and aromas; and the spiritual powers of food to influence mood and character, moderated by bodily humors and the signs of the zodiac. It’s complicated but always intriguing.

Just as his education, his outer journey, leads him to the palace, his inner journey involves coming to terms with the pain he would rather forget. I like this psychological and philosophical aspect better than the concoctions themselves or the studies that inform them, not only because they are character-dependent, and character is a flimsy reed here, but also because of the storytelling style.

As in the paragraph quoted above, Ersin adopts a wide, omniscient lens, and though that suits his tale in a way—and is likely traditional–it also distances the reader. The narrative explains more than shows, and even when you see the action, in which people yield to the cook’s wishes, that miraculous quality I referred to earlier, you don’t always feel as if you’re in the scene. That applies particularly in the book’s first half, whereas, during the cook’s psychological quest, he and his surroundings come through more clearly.

Consequently, the narrative hangs mostly on the cook’s clever machinations and Byzantine plot twists (sorry; I couldn’t resist), not always satisfying, as they seem ordained, despite the depth of the struggle.

Yet The Pasha of Cuisine is worth your time as an entertaining tale of romance and intrigue. And if you read it, I suggest having snacks handy — tasty mezes, perhaps.

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

Waif, Reinvented: Vera

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Review: Vera, by Carol Edgarian
Scribner, 2021. 313 pp. $27

Fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson has two mothers, not just one, but neither will truly own her, and the word love doesn’t exist. Arrangement, yes; pawn in a power game, yes. But not love. The inconvenient child to Rose, a flamboyant, wildly successful brothel madam, Vera is farmed out as part of a business deal to Morie, a Swedish immigrant who lives in an aquavit bottle. Though not destitute, by any means—Rose, from a distance, sees to that–the Johnson household is impoverished in other, more important ways.

One is that Morie’s older daughter, Piper, called Pie, is everything Vera’s not: pretty, pliable, too weak to stand up for herself or anyone else, and retreats from tough decisions. Both girls suffer Morie’s whims, self-pity, and attacks with a hairbrush, but these injuries hurt Vera more. And with Pie around, who’ll pay any attention to mousy, cranky Vera?

However, circumstances are about to change—oh, are they ever—for this is San Francisco, and the year is 1906. One night, Enrico Caruso is in town to sing Carmen, and Rose springs for tickets for the Johnsons, though she stipulates that her guests aren’t allowed anywhere near her. That allows Vera the chance to roam, which she enjoys. Not only does she wander backstage (improbably) and catches sight of the great tenor before he goes on stage, she runs into Mayor Eugene Schmitz, an old acquaintance, who rightfully fears he’ll be indicted for graft the following day. San Francisco, corrupt to the core, is the sewer in which he swims.

But later that night, an earthquake devastates the city, and the world literally turns upside-down. Vera and Pie must flee their home and take refuge in Rose’s former brothel, which has largely escaped the disaster, though the madam herself is nowhere to be found. That the very idea of living there revolts Pie on moral grounds, despite the absence of any choice, tells you what you need to know about her. Vera, more adept and flexible, takes charge, with Tan, Rose’s Chinese cook, and his unpleasant, scheming daughter, Lifang, as occasional allies, more often enemies. Within weeks, Vera becomes someone well worth watching, indeed.

San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 earthquake (courtesy Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center, via US Geodetic Survey)

The transformation, realistically halting and well earned, makes Vera such a pleasure, and our heroine’s road is steeper than Nob Hill. Her relationship to Rose, as fraught and entrapping as any mother-daughter duo, takes front and center, appropriately so. But San Francisco is a significant character too, and how the city reacts to its tragedy—and who hopes to profit—forms an essential part of the narrative and Vera’s education. Of necessity, she grows up quickly on the outside, but within, retains her teenage longings, and, as such, represents the city’s coming of age as well, an impressive literary feat.

As Vera observes early on about her hometown, “To know her was to hold in your heart the up-downness of things. Her curves and hollows, her extremes. Her windy peaks and mini-climates. Her beauty, her trembling. Her greed.” That passage might apply to Rose as well, though Vera doesn’t know that yet.

So it is that Edgarian establishes Vera’s extraordinary, compelling voice, another pleasure of the novel. With a clear-sightedness that asks no pity yet takes up residence in your heart, this young girl freely acknowledges who she is, an unloved “special bastard,” belonging nowhere:

And though that fact pained me in my early youth, I came to see my place as unique. I was never trapped by pretty frocks and expectations of home and hearth that plagued the other girls I knew; I was a secret, bound by a secret, and if all that binding kept me apart, it also allowed me a certain freedom. My mind was my sole company, and when the old world ended and the new world began, my mind would have to see us through.

You can see the feminism, here—if Vera is about anything, it’s about women and power—but Edgarian doesn’t stop there. As her protagonist learns, aches, and explores the boundaries of a world that suddenly poses fewer restraints on her, the narrative repeatedly returns to what a woman can hope for. Love? Maybe, but not for sale—Vera, though no prude, has firm objections to prostitution as a reflection of unequal power. Security? Maybe that too, but again, the price the woman pays matters, and Vera’s uncompromising, sometimes to her cost, as she realizes only in retrospect.

The novel seems so sure-footed, it’s hard to signal missteps, and none strike me as serious. The narrative glides over a couple difficulties, giving you the impression that they simply faded away. But these rare instances of unearned progression in no way mar a brilliant, evocative portrayal of a young woman looking for a place to stand she can call her own. I highly recommend Vera.

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

What Makes a Conspiracy Theory: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

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Review: Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen
FSG, 2021. 271 pp. $27

Life feels fragile in the German Duchy of Württemberg, for it’s 1618, and not only does plague stalk the land, the Thirty Years War brings the passage of armies and their attendant depredations. But in the village of Leonberg, these afflictions only lap around the edges. What really matters is that Katharina Kepler is accused of witchcraft.

Katharina is an old woman, a grandmother who puts more faith in her beloved cow, Chamomile, than in people, young children excepted. Known for herbal remedies and her strange way of talking — she seldom answers a question directly, and asks in turn those that nobody else would dream of — she’s a busybody. She thinks nothing of bursting into someone’s house, whether to bring a gift or tell them how they should be living. The Yiddish word nudnik comes to mind.

She’s the sort who has an opinion about everything, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to hear it. She has a way of summing people up in insulting terms: “The crowd of them looked like a pack of dull troubadours who, come morning, have made off with all the butter.” Finally, her son, Johannes, is Imperial Mathematician, and Katharina’s neighbors are always asking her if he’ll cast their horoscopes. Apparently, he knows things about the heavens and writes books. These are suspicious activities, especially if the desired horoscope isn’t forthcoming.

Johannes Kepler, who framed the laws of planetary motion, in 1620, portrait artist unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this eccentric yet harmless profile emerges the most incredible folklore. The good citizens of Leonberg believe, or come to believe, that Katharina has the power to poison, make people lame, pass through locked doors, cause livestock to sicken and die, and consort with the devil. How they arrive at these fancies — and why — makes a brilliant narrative, at once chilling and hilarious, absurd, yet with the ring of absolute truth.

In a novel like this, especially in the first-person narratives Galchen deploys, voice matters greatly. Here’s Katharina’s, on one of her favorite subjects, the failings of the local authorities:

I know you’ll think it’s not wise… but I’d like to say something about Ducal Governor Einhorn, whom I prefer to call the False Unicorn. He’s not from this area. He was brought in by the marvelous Duchess Sybille, may she rest in peace. The False Unicorn was to defer to Sybille’s judgment in all matters. Then Sybille died so suddenly. The Duke was distracted — with counting soldiers, signing treaties, commissioning lace shirt cuffs.… and so the False Unicorn usurped powers that should have reverted to the Duke. He began to puff up, Einhorn did. He wore his hair longer. He had a new collar made.… I will say that the False Unicorn looks like an unwell river otter in a doublet.

You might suppose, as I did at first, that Galchen owes a debt to Kafka. Not quite. In Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares, the hand that wields power remains obscure, sometimes invisible. Here, you see the workings, or many of them; more importantly, you see their paranoid, angry underpinnings. Kafka is said to have read his work out loud to friends, causing general laughter. I’ve never laughed at Kafka — maybe that says something about me — but I did at Galchen. Until, that is, the accusations gather steam.

Everyone Knows is a feminist statement, for we have a free-thinking woman blamed for heresies, mostly by other women, interestingly. It’s as though they resent her for doing what they’ve never let themselves even think of. But though misogyny, including the self-inflicted variety, has historically fed attempts to suppress witchcraft, there’s much more here. Galchen has delved into the paranoia that produces conspiracy theories, and her reconstruction of their origins is spot on. Life has disappointed them, hasn’t granted what the conspiracy theorist assumes he or she deserves and, by God, someone will pay. If that’s not a diagnosis of a sickness that threatens this country’s social, cultural, and political fabric, I don’t know what is.

Some readers will find that this novel ends abruptly, and maybe it does. But that doesn’t trouble me. Galchen’s less concerned with what happens than its origins and legacy; she’s not so focused on the plot, and I accept that. More bothersome is the language, entirely brilliant, yet with occasional lapses in diction. Images like troubadours stealing butter or an otter in a doublet strike my ear perfectly, so I’m not prepared for modern idioms like okay, open up, be fine with, or share your story. If Galchen, a careful writer, is trying to suggest that these seventeenth-century Germans are just like us, she’s proven that in other, deeper ways.

And it is precisely those ways that make Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch required reading.

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

East African Enmities: The Idol of Mombasa

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Review: The Idol of Mombasa, by Annamaria Alfieri
Felony and Mayhem, 2016. 249 pp. $15

When Justin Tolliver and his new bride, Vera, take up residence in Mombasa, British East Africa Protectorate, early in 1912, they have mixed feelings. They have transferred from Nairobi, where Justin, a colonial police officer, enjoyed his position, near where Vera was born, and her beloved father has his mission. But duty calls: Justin has been promoted to assistant district superintendent. Therein lies a source of marital friction, however, for he loves his work, whereas Vera wishes he’d give it up and become a farmer, as so many colonials do.

Justin promises he won’t remain on the force for long — a year at most — but that year promises to be very busy. He’s not even unpacked in Mombasa before a criminal act takes place that has diplomatic implications. The Grand Mufti of Egypt is in town to exhort the faithful of Islam, collect presents from the British, and remind them that their hold on the protectorate is anything but absolute, depending as it does on the Sultan of Zanzibar’s goodwill. And when a slave belonging to a prominent Muslim businessman runs away and is murdered for it, that should prompt soul-searching among the colonials. After all, Britain has outlawed slavery and claims that this “civilizing” influence justifies their empire. Yet political considerations and racism combine to separate the law from justice, at least as it’s practiced on the street.

Mombasa, buying ivory hunted in the East African interior, 1910-1920, Underwood & Underwood (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

This outlook sits poorly with Justin, who believes in the stated moral principle. He also espouses a comparatively liberal outlook concerning the people the British govern. He respects his sergeant, Kwai Libazo, a man half Kikuyu, half Masai, and takes him at his word, an attitude that marks Justin as “soft” among his peers. Back in England, he was a keen sportsman who played games as much for their sense of rules as their competitive aspect. But he’s a newcomer to Mombasa; he must follow orders; and, as an earl’s second son, he faces reverse snobbery, which makes his every move suspect. Other colonials wonder how an English-born aristocrat can even think of being a police officer, while they also turn up their noses at Vera, because he’s married down.

Meanwhile, Vera is fiercely anti-slavery and has far fewer scruples about adopting local customs. She understands that British clothing and manners don’t fit in Africa, and she wants to learn Arabic — imagine! Unlike a proper English wife, she speaks her mind, so Justin hears her views on his moral compromises, another arena of marital conflict. Nevertheless, husband and wife appreciate qualities in the other that they also fear. This setup provides great possibilities.

As befits the British colonial mission, they have their romantic notions about where they are and what they’re doing. For Justin, though Mombasa makes him wrinkle his nose, it also represents an exotic fantasy:

The smell of the salt air called to mind his father’s history books and his own boyhood dreams of adventure. He imagined that this place now smelled much the same as it had to da Gama, aboard the Portuguese carrack São Gabriel when the great explorer entered Mombasa Harbor, the first European to come to this place. This was a reason to be here. This had been a place of adventure for centuries. Whatever else Mombasa was, this was the sort of place that, as a child, he had always longed to be.

If all this seems extraneous to the mystery, rest assured it belongs. Alfieri creates a solid whodunit, with a satisfying ending. Just when you think she’s tipped her hand, she hasn’t. Suspects abound from all cultures and walks of life, including the Reverend Robert Morley and his sister, Katharine. (Is this echo of the actors in The African Queen too cute? Probably.) Still, despite the issues of justice, the marriage subplot, the racial and ethnic hatreds that divide the city, and Mombasa itself, only the mystery kept me reading.

The characters, though they display more than a single trait or two, seem locked into either-or emotional states during conflict, which simplifies them and makes them predictable. Also, Alfieri’s writing style, occasionally repetitive, as in the above example, explains more than it shows and distances me. Sometimes the explanations follow action that’s already clear or restate what’s been narrated before. It’s as though Alfieri or her editor fears that we’ve forgotten the circumstances or motivations and need reminders. Either that, or she doesn’t see how to deepen such moments. It’s too bad, because there’s much on offer, and I applaud the author’s intent and loving portrayal of time, place, and cultural associations. I wish more historical mysteries did that.

Read The Idol of Mombasa, if you will, for the story. But if you’re like me, you’ll wish the rest held up its end as well.

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

Grey. Thomas Grey: Hold Fast

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Review: Hold Fast, by J. H. Gelernter
Norton, 2021. 238 pp. $26

Thomas Grey, late of the Royal Marines and His Majesty’s Secret Service, intends to sail to Boston and take a job with a lumber merchant. The year is 1803, the Napoleonic Wars have reached a respite, and Grey wishes to seize his chance to get out while he can. Having lost his beloved wife to a French raid on the merchantman on which the Greys were traveling, he’ll to the war no more.

Ah, but not so fast. A privateer attacks the ship on which he’s bound across the Atlantic, and news comes that Napoleon has revoked the Treaty of Amiens, resuming the war against Britain. Grey, with much derring-do, helps repel the attack, but the damaged ship must make landfall in neutral Portugal for refitting. While he’s there, circumstances hand him a great opportunity to pretend to switch sides and dupe French intelligence with disinformation. Rest assured that our hero’s game of double agent will lead him into many tight situations, as he must penetrate the inner sanctum of French military power.

Michelle de Bonneuil (1748-1829), rendered here in pastel by Rosalie Filleul, ca. 1778, was celebrated for her beauty, charm, and artistic ability–and acted as a spy for the French Revolutionary government and Napoleon (unknown provenance, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

If you’re thinking that Hold Fast sounds like Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels of the Napoleonic era meeting Ian Fleming’s James Bond, you’ve nailed it, and the author intends as much. In his afterword, Gelernter confirms himself an admirer of both. For reasons I’ll get to a little later, I wish he’d hewn more to O’Brian than Fleming, but as a fast-paced adventure story, Hold Fast has its charms.

First and foremost, the narrative moves like lightning, with “no—and furthermore” lurking in every nook and cranny, to say nothing of dark alleys and rooms in which two’s company and three’s a crowd—especially when the uninvited third holds a weapon. Secondly, Gelernter has a lot of fun turning Grey into a nineteenth-century Bond, equally at home at a gaming table, vineyard tasting room, or hand-to-hand combat. The in-joke will raise a chuckle, here and there; Hold Fast can be pleasingly clever, that way.

The narrative also shows a grasp of physical detail, lightly handled:

It was only the sound of seamen holystoning the Ruby’s deck that pulled him back to the present, reminded him where he was—it was that scrape-scrape, scrape-scrape of men on their knees scouring the ship with sandstone chunks the size and shape of Bibles. Grey couldn’t help but notice that the pace of the scraping was considerably slower than it was, invariably, in the navy. On this ship there was no bosun to start the men with a kick in the pants. Nevertheless, the ship was impeccably clean. Perhaps there was a lesson in that.

As this passage implies, Grey, though a naval intelligence man through and through, rejects the brutal Royal Navy discipline, so a wisp of democrat exists beneath the surface of a warrior for king and country. It’s a wrinkle, unfortunately one of few, and the others don’t appeal me—he’s a prig, vengeful, cold, with a moral code stereotypical of the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Which raises the question: Is this meant to be funny?

There’s a scene in which a young woman points a pistol at him. Since she’s neglected to cock it (it’s a flintlock, naturally), Grey has no trouble subduing her. He cracks her on the side of the head—gently, mind you—deftly grasps her body before it falls, and deposits her in a chair. Should we laugh?

Such humor, if that’s what it is, sits oddly, though, and not just because a lot of bodies fall. Lacking the tongue-in-cheek bravura of the George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, Hold Fast conversely fails to treat the serious subject matter with depth or empathy. Grey’s flatness, though it may provoke a smile, as in the above scene, renders him an automaton, and priggishness never did much for anyone, especially without a sidekick with whom to contrast. As a shallow, even dislikable character, then, Grey offers little to bond with, if you will. This is where the narrative misses anything remotely akin to the O’Brian gift for character and relationships.

I read Hold Fast mildly curious to know how Grey would foil the threats against him. But if I’d stopped reading halfway through, I wouldn’t have felt cheated, because I didn’t find him compelling. Moreover, you can guess how he’ll proceed, relying on his preternatural aptitude for close-quarters combat, which no one else ever seems to match.

Consequently, the character in the novel lacks depth, and the character of the novel comes down mostly to cleverness. That has its points occasionally; my favorite bits concern intriguing sidelights on gambling or the making of champagne. But if these are the most interesting aspects of Hold Fast, I can’t say I’m held.

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

Cult Following: The Prophet

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Review: The Prophet, by Martine Bailey
Severn, 2021. 241 pp. $30

It’s May 1753, and Tabitha De Vallory (née Hart) has every reason to rejoice. A former prostitute turned lady of the manor, Tabitha has found married happiness with Nat, onetime rake and scribbler of scurrilous, lurid tales, now declared heir to a Cheshire estate and the baronetcy that goes with it. Come summer, Tabitha will give birth to their first child.

But when the body of a pregnant seventeen-year-old girl, likely a prostitute, is found beneath the Mandrem Oak, an ancient tree on Nat’s land said to have magical powers, Tabitha sets out to find the killer. Her pregnancy hampers her, not least because Dr. Caldwell insists she remain in bed and refrain from any thought or activity upsetting to her weak feminine constitution. Tabitha wishes she could tell him to stuff it, but despite her natural boldness, she must placate Nat, who fears for her; the servants dedicated to treating her like a human wheelbarrow; and—a nice touch—her own fears and folk beliefs.

Further complicating matters, a charismatic preacher, Baptist Gunn, has gathered a band of believers near the Mondrem Oak. He prophesies a savior to be born that summer and a kingdom free of such annoyances as private property, privileges of birth, or the confines of marriage, all to be found in His Majesty’s colony of Pennsylvania. His followers put their faith in Gunn and the New World he describes, largely turning a blind eye to his habit of lifting every skirt he can get his hands on.

William Hogarth’s painting, An Election Entertainment, 1754-55, helped fuel a legend that riots greeted Britain’s change of calendar in 1753, when it was merely an election issue (courtesy Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The Prophet is the sequel to The Almanack, and readers of that mystery will find welcome parallels here. As characters with disreputable pasts, Tabitha and Nat must tend their reputations, and the course of their true love travels a bumpy road. I like the hurdles Bailey places in their way, particularly important because Nat, as acting lord of the manor and responsible for catching the murderer, has the physical and moral freedom Tabitha lacks, whereas what secrets he chooses to share (or not) affect domestic bliss.

Readers of the previous tale will also recognize the feminist slant. Nobody understands the sexual double standard better than Tabitha, but, in a further twist, she has to train herself to reach Nat emotionally rather than rely on physical attraction alone. Meanwhile, she suffers the neighbors’ snobbery, endures passes from any man who thinks he can get away with it, and hates being on public display as a child-bearing member of the gentry, rather like a monument about which everyone offers an opinion. The sawbones, whom she heartily dislikes yet also fears, just in case his medical opinions are correct, represents only part of her trials:

Doctor Caldwell was a shambling man of five and thirty; unkempt in his person, with a greasy old cauliflower wig, and the protruding eyes of an overbred pug dog. According to Nat he was an excellent physician, but his manner left Tabitha feeling like a brood mare being assessed for market. First, he inspected her urine in a glass, holding it to the light, then sniffing it, and—rather disgustingly—tasting a few drops on the ends of his fingers. . . . Close up, she was forced to turn her nose from great wafts of his onion breath.

Finally, The Prophet enacts the fascination with folklore that drove The Almanack, and I find that the most appealing part of the current tale. Through Baptist Gunn and his cult followers, and the mysteries and folklore of childbearing and fortune telling, Bailey offers a fine glimpse of everyday Cheshire life. I like how she captures the outlook of people who pretend to be modern but aren’t, nor do they know what modern means, except that it scares them. Nowhere is that more evident than in time keeping, in which a society largely without clocks or authoritative calendars can’t be sure what day it is—especially because the country has just changed systems. That uncertainty affects the story.

However, I find the storytelling and writing less compelling than those of the previous installment. Here, the villains are 100 percent villainous, Gunn’s 100 percent corrupt, and the mystery, 95 percent predictable, the remaining 5 percent accounting for minor detail. As for narrative style, I prefer stories in which authors show rather than tell, particularly when it comes to their characters’ emotions. The Prophet, for all its welcome marital complications between Nat and Tabitha, often resolves them through explanation, or so it seems. I notice many physical descriptions that feel static rather than active, a surefire measure of tell versus show.

I wish I could recommend The Prophet more highly. I hope that future installments reclaim the pleasures of its predecessor.

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

Dante and Derring-Do: The Master of Verona

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Review: The Master of Verona, by David Blixt
St. Martin’s, 2007. 561 pp. $28

In 1314, Verona’s master, Cangrande della Scala, extends patronage to Dante Alighieri, who has been banished from Florence, and his two surviving sons, Pietro, seventeen, and Jacopo, fourteen. The poet has recently published Inferno, to great renown and no little fear of heresy or impiety. But della Scala quickly realizes that Dante’s not the only gifted member of the family, nor the most useful.

Rather, he fixes on Pietro, who longs to escape his father’s shadow (while hoping pater will actually notice him one day and approve). And when Pietro falls in with two other youths — one noble, one from a merchant family pretending nobility — military adventure offers. Della Scala, a twenty-three-year-old wunderkind, dreams of uniting Italy under his banner. His approach to war, diplomacy, and familial politics has much to do with an ancient prophecy that says a figure called the Greyhound will realize that far-fetched scheme. He’s magnetic, generous, and apparently scrupulous, a rare combination. Pietro’s enthralled, and his passion takes him places, often alongside his new friends, the first he’s ever had in his life.

Equestrian statue, no date, of Cangrande della Scala, Museo di Castelvecchio,
Verona (courtesy Eggbread, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Between the derring-do, battle scenes, court intrigue, and the question of occupying many thinkers on the cusp of the Renaissance — do the stars foretell fate, or does free will have influence? — The Master of Verona makes for epic adventure. The thrumming plot, larger-than-life characters and perilous twists and turns evoke an approach like that of Dumas. The pages turn rapidly, numerous though they are. Astrology, poetry, chivalry, prophecy, and love figure here, all entertaining subjects, and I enjoy many of the characters, who take them seriously.

Besides Pietro and della Scala’s sister, Katerina, I particularly like Dante himself, who unfortunately drops out of the narrative. Blixt portrays him as a self-absorbed narcissist conscious of his genius who has little time for his children, except when they disappoint him. The exception? His daughter, Antonia, who, at thirteen, keeps the booksellers in line and acts as self-appointed caretaker of her father’s career. In letters, he calls her Beatrice, which she treasures. Katerina and Antonia are women ahead of their time, seeking power and influence denied them because of their gender.

Otherwise, the novel has wars, a horse race through the streets, trysts, duels, and every action conceivable. Not all are credible, and Pietro’s powers can test belief, especially as he’s received little schooling in the martial arts; but never mind. As an added conceit, Shakespearean characters and situations waft through the narrative, whether the plays belong to Vienna (Romeo and Juliet), or not (Othello, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing). Note that Blixt is an actor and director, and you can tell: His approach is theatrical, to say the least.

As a storyteller, he offers brio, panache, and a command of historical detail:

Inside the city walls, the streets were all but impassable. Spectators, gamblers, merchants, peasants, petitioners — all had traveled for days to vie for what lodging they could find. The decent rooms were already rented out to triple or quadruple capacity.… Many visitors, even noble ones, were forced to sleep on dirty floors, or in stables, where the beds were somewhat more comfortable. But fully half the people in the city were not sleeping. Other attractions called — treats and spectacles and mythical beasts, lights and sounds and smells.

However, as this passage suggests, Blixt sometimes trowels on the detail, drawing back the authorial focus and distancing the reader. This narrative technique, which can seem static, undermines the drive he achieves with the storyline and makes you work to stay connected. The author also indulges in information dumps, swelling the dialogue with facts and background, at which the reader’s eye grows impatient. Or this reader’s does. If these facts matter to the story, and I’m not sure they always do, better to show them through action, rather than have people explain them to each other.

I doubt fourteenth-century people, or those anytime, would speak the way Blixt has it, unless they’re all pedants. Then again, these folk often think like moderns, however intently they hew to the philosophical framework of their era. Present-day vocabulary dots the dialogue, and when characters discourse on various subjects, they occasionally refer to knowledge that lies in the future. They also speak incorrect French, admittedly a minor quibble, though indicative of carelessness of writer or editor that emerges elsewhere.

But it’s the discursive, lecturing quality that hampers the novel most. The final chapters are particularly striking for that, as the narrative struggles to wrap up convolutions and contradictions through speechmaking. It’s an unsatisfying, melodramatic conclusion.

For a wild, evocative ride, in which action carries the day, The Master of Verona makes for entertaining reading. Less would have achieved more.

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

Love and Murder: Death of a Showman

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Review: Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks
Minotaur, 2021. 276 pp. $27

Jane Prescott, lady’s maid to wealthy socialite Mrs. Louise Tyler, has just returned from an exhausting trip to Europe in June 1914, during which they attended a wedding. Much to Jane’s dismay, the pros and cons of marriage are on her mind, considering that Leo Hirschfeld, a musician who might or might not have been courting her the previous summer, has married, after insisting he wouldn’t. Then too, the Tylers seem, well, maybe not unhappy with each other, but out of sorts. Bored, maybe.

No boredom allowed when Leo invites Mrs. Tyler to a rehearsal of a ragtime musical for which he’s written the score, and whose cast so happens to include his new bride. Mrs. Tyler has no idea she’s being cultivated as a potential investor in the show. But Jane, who wasn’t born yesterday, realizes that the flirtatious Leo, who can’t abide the idea that someone might resent him, especially if she has every reason to, hopes to get back into her good graces.

Naturally, she has no intention of joining Mrs. Tyler at the theater; just as obviously, she must, because her employer needs a chaperone, and Louise relies on her. Further, you know that one visit won’t be enough, so Mrs. Tyler begins regularly attending rehearsals, while Jane works backstage. She also has to sit through watching Leo’s better half, a voluptuous airhead whose only talent seems to be walking downstairs in a suggestive way. Mrs. Tyler really has no idea how much Jane puts up with for her sake.

Readers familiar with the Jane Prescott mystery series know that someone will soon wind up dead, and Jane will solve the crime. You don’t need a crystal ball (or the jacket flap) to guess that the victim will be Sidney Warburton, the show’s producer. A ruthless, exploitive tyrant who takes pride in seducing other men’s wives, Warburton gets shot in a bathroom stall at Rector’s restaurant during a cast party.

This backdrop may sound familiar for a mystery, but Fredericks makes it her own. Warburton’s not a pure monster; he’s helped many people, given them a chance in a cutthroat theatrical world. Not only does his generosity, however self-interested, flesh him out, it complicates the question of motive. Though just about every member of cast and crew has suffered his vitriol and humiliating behavior, he’s also their bread and butter; even, in cases, their rescuer.

For decades, David Belasco was the high priest of the American theater, complete with clerical collar, his trademark. (1909, unattributed; courtesy J. Willis Sayre Collection of Theatrical Photographs, University of Washington, Seattle, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Moreover, Fredericks knows her historical and theatrical ground, whether we’re talking about what the theater district looked like in 1914, or what went on there. To this theater historian and lifelong devotee, she’s conjured up what makes actors tick, the glamour and what lies behind it, and an unsophisticated public’s fear (and admiration) of the theater as institution and lifestyle. Several characters’ names or reputations evoke stars from the era. For those readers familiar with that theatrical age, see if you recognize a hint of David Belasco, a hack producer/director and playwright but technological innovator, in this description of Warburton’s theater:

Only seven years old, the Sidney Theater was equipped with the most modern advances — hydraulics, a lighting board, and set workshops on the lower floors with an elevator to carry the results up to the stage — as well as the most lavish of interior design. Its creator had said he wanted the audience to feel as if they were in someone’s home, and so they might, if that someone were a Vanderbilt. Glossy oak paneling shone as red-brown as a setter’s coat, alongside Tiffany stained glass and murals of the more titillating Greek myths.

I like Fredericks’s re-creation of Rector’s (a real place) and the cast-party murder scene, in which the killer must be present, yet plausibly escapes notice. It’s a clever blend of two mystery traditions, the locked room and the clue in plain sight. For further depth, always welcome, the author explores whether love is what it looks like, and whether you can separate it from physical passion. Along the way, the dialogue crackles with wit — I don’t recall laughing as much reading the other Jane Prescott mysteries — as you might expect from theater folk.

Accordingly, Fredericks has loosened Jane’s corset a notch, and though that makes sense for the story, I stumbled over that, remembering her from previous episodes as a more cautious, demure woman of her time. Another significant character reveals a different sort of shift, which feels contrived — a rare slip for the author. The unnecessary, perhaps deliberately misleading, prologue is at least short enough not to annoy too much. And though the narrative includes the approach of the European war, which makes sense, the mixture doesn’t always flow smoothly, nor are the details always historically accurate.

But Death of a Showman remains a delicious, poignant treat, and I highly recommend it.

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

A Woman’s Place: Girl in Disguise

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Review: Girl in Disguise, by Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks, 2017. 301 pp. $26

Kate Warne’s up against it. Chicago in 1856 is a rough town for a young widow with no money, no job prospects, and no desire to remarry. Mistreated by parents who never loved her, exploited her, and taught her never to love or trust anyone, Kate has learned to lie and dissemble, as circumstances seem to require. That skill, at least, she picked up from her father, a down-on-his-luck actor who, when not putting on stage makeup to perform, tried his hand at con games.

Alexander Gardner’s photo at Antietam, September 1862, of Allan Pinkerton (seated, right) and a woman believed to be Kate Warne, standing behind him. (courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Which explains why, when Kate reads a want ad run by Allan Pinkerton looking for an operative to join his agency, she applies. After all, doesn’t she have the natural talent? Pinkerton nearly throws her out of his office; his profession is no place for a woman, he says. But Kate perseveres, of course, and Pinkerton reluctantly gives her a trial run — which doesn’t work out too well.

How that happens, and what she does about it, I’ll leave for you to find out, for Girl in Disguise is well worth your exploration. Be warned, however: Readers expecting a whodunit or thriller or even a unified plot will be disappointed, but, I expect, not for long. Such is the brio with which Macallister tells her story, and the loving attention she pays her protagonist, that it hardly matters.

Girl in Disguise is a coming-into-her-own novel, as Kate settles into her profession and masters it. Sometimes that process feels too easy, but rest assured, “no — and furthermore” resides here. The chapters represent cases, some of which are connected, especially in the narrative’s latter stages. But most stand alone, showing Kate’s progression, the professional and personal obstacles she faces, and, above all, how she handles a line of work that excites and fascinates her, yet leaves little or no room for a private life, let alone intimacy.

That, in turn, leads her toward self-discovery, because she must ask herself what she wants, and whether she’s lied so well to the world, she has fooled herself as well. As such, her character drives the narrative, an essential, given that the plot is episodic and fragmented. It’s an unusual way to approach a suspense novel, but here, it works.

Kate Warne was a real person, but little is known about her. Macallister does an impressive job re-creating her in plausible fashion. I particularly like the family history, which both brings out her character and influences the story line. Better yet, she lets Kate remain emotionally scarred. No miraculous transformations mar this book, for the author is too psychologically astute for that. The most exciting parts involve what few traces the real Kate Warne left in the historical record, and what tantalizing bits they are. She helped spirit Lincoln safely through Baltimore just before his first inauguration, foiling an assassination attempt. Later, during the Civil War, she performed surveillance on Rose Greenhow, a Washington socialite and clever Confederate spy.

Greenhow not only makes a worthy opponent, she comes across with particular vividness:

Artfully, she flirted, and I watched how she flirted. Her hands were deployed like soldiers to any front where they were needed: stroking a man’s sleeve to create intimacy, resting on the piano to reinforce her wealth, trailing along the side of her neck to draw attention to her body. She was not a young woman, but she was a beautiful one, no mistake. Her beauty alone was not all she had to offer. She gave off some kind of energy that drew men to her. Her gift, I saw, was attention. There was nothing more intoxicating to these men.

I wish Pinkerton’s characterization reached this level, but I don’t see his inner life or motivations as clearly as Kate’s or Greenhow’s. I wanted more from this major character. Lincoln’s cameo appearance provides just enough detail, I suppose, though I could have used a little more with him too, and George B. McClellan gets even shorter shrift, which I understand, yet which sets off my historian’s itch. During the war, McClellan would later command the Army of the Potomac and employ Pinkerton to run informants, who invariably offered inflated estimates of Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed them whole and used them as an excuse not to fight, driving Lincoln crazy. Maybe some other novelist will tackle that triangle.

The relative shallowness of the male characters is the most serious weakness of Girl in Disguise. With one exception, a suave, dapper colleague at Pinkerton’s agency who has a secret to protect, the men don’t measure up to Kate, Greenhow, or two women whom Kate trains as operatives.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Girl in Disguise, which richly imagines a complex tale based on a sketchy historical record.

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