Distanced Vision: A Shadowed Fate


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Review: A Shadowed Fate, by Marty Ambrose
Severn, 2020. 180 pp. $29

In 1873, Claire Clairmont, the last surviving member of the Byron/Shelley literary circle from 1816, is scraping by in more ways than one. Living in genteel poverty in Florence with her niece and grandniece, Claire has little in her life besides them and treasured memories of Lord Byron, by whom she bore illegitimate daughter, Allegra. However, Allegra’s dead, having succumbed to typhus as a young child—or so Claire believes. But when Edward Trelawny, who married Mary Shelley after her poet husband died, tells Claire that her daughter may be alive after all, the news galvanizes her to action. Claire must find Allegra.

However, matters aren’t so simple. For one thing, Claire is furious that her old friend Trelawny has kept the secret for a half-century. Indeed, that is rather hard to explain, and both he and the narrative strain to do so. For another, Trelawny and Claire were lovers once, briefly, and he claims to still love her; though again, she’s dubious, considering that Mary Shelley was her half-sister, and he racked up two other wives besides.

Nevertheless, I like this premise as a potential romantic intrigue, and A Shadowed Fate might have grabbed me had the narrative focused on that as a counterpoint to the search for Allegra. We might have had the aging romantic figures conflict over past and present, with a window on what their lives have become, what they might have been, and truth versus perception. Instead, the narrative avoids the conflict between Claire and Trelawny while trying to make a mystery out of Allegra. I think that’s pretty thin material, and bringing in Byron doesn’t liven it up enough.

Claire Clairmont, portrait by Amelia Curran, 1819 (courtesy Newstead Abbey via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Partly, that’s because the story hinges too much on what happened fifty years or more before the novel begins, yet we never see this drama enacted. Rather, Claire reads about it in Byron’s memoirs of his attempt to aid Italian revolutionaries around the time of Allegra’s supposed death. Just as awkwardly, Allegra herself has a few paragraphs to narrate, here and there; how did that happen? Consequently, though Byron becomes the center of the story, no one interacts with him except for the people he’s writing about, only one whom still lives—and it’s not Claire. So he remains an offstage presence, and the crucial story feels distant.

Equally curious, Claire or Ambrose or both seem to have given him a pass for his despicable behavior, startling given that Byron had to be one of the most selfish, egotistical, and vindictive geniuses ever to draw breath. That wouldn’t matter if you understood why Claire still holds a candle for him; but he holds a candle for nobody, intent on burning it at both ends. Maybe that’s the trouble, evoking through a telescope a man who’s long dead, but I think there’s more to it. Compare, for instance, the portrayal here with that in The Enchantress of Numbers, Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel about his only legitimate child, the mathematician Ada Lovelace. Even though Byron appears briefly in that narrative, you see his attraction—and the horrific damage he causes.

As for the mystery in A Shadowed Fate, no plot twist ever reaches the level of “no — and furthermore.” Rather, it’s more like “maybe something will go wrong, but we don’t know.” That’s not enough to sustain any narrative, mystery or no, and when the major, climactic reversal arrives, a clichéd tableau results.

What you do get in A Shadowed Fate is a loving sketch of Italy, which Ambrose clearly knows and revels in. There are moments when you can soak in these places and wish you could see them as they were a hundred fifty years ago. But the characters intrude, and I find less to draw me, there. Much as the first fifty or so pages consist of dialogue dumping information, the characterization progresses through telling rather than showing. One significant example: I don’t see why Trelawny says that Claire was magnetic in her youth, or that he still cares for her.

I wish this novel stirred or beguiled me; unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in return for an honest review.

Intriguing Developments: The Last Passenger


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Review: The Last Passenger, by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 2020. 292 pp. $28

London, 1855. When a plodding, dissolute Scotland Yard inspector asks Charles Lenox for help solving a murder at Paddington Station, that request puts Lenox in a difficult position with most of the force. First of all, Charles is an amateur; secondly, unlike any police inspector, he’s of gentle birth (the second son of a baronet); and thirdly, he has a way of turning up evidence and making deductions that arouses envy. But this particular case offers no clues to be envious about. The dead man carries no means of identification — no wallet, papers, or belongings — and the murderer removed all the labels in the victim’s clothes.

What’s more, the investigation reaches frequent impasses, because “no — and furthermore” has taken up residence here. You never have the feeling that justice is inexorable, which adds to the tension, and what strikes you most isn’t Lenox’s skill but his eagerness to learn. That quality separates him from some (though not all) duly sanctioned officers of the law.

Since The Last Passenger is the thirteenth entry in the Charles Lenox series, the third of a prequel trilogy portraying how he began his career, I didn’t know I’d wind up reviewing it until I realized, within the first few chapters, how it stood out for me from its siblings. The mystery is extremely clever, and the prose graceful, but with Finch, those are givens. Rather, what appeals to me most about The Last Passenger is how the narrative probes more deeply into Charles’s character and moral and political beliefs than any other installment I’ve read.

To many men of his social station, he’s betrayed his class, and they cut him accordingly, which hurts. That has happened before, but here, he aches more from it. Further, he fears his mother disapproves as well, which carries extra weight, and she’s his sole surviving parent. Nor does his loneliness end there. Still a bachelor at age twenty-seven, and having extinguished his torch for his childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Lady Jane Grey (now, there’s a name from Tudor history!), he finds that Lady Jane and his mother keep putting eligible young women in his way. At first, he wishes they didn’t, but when one young woman in particular smiles upon him, he wonders about that thing called love.

I don’t remember another Lenox novel in which our hero pays so much attention to the disparity of wealth that the metropolis displays, and of which he’s an example. Nor has he before now recognized racial prejudice, in himself or anyone else, or considered deeply the institution of American slavery that has aroused protest in England as the story opens. (Echoes of current issues, perhaps?) Finally, as regular readers of Finch’s series know, the author delights in peppering his narratives with arcane facts, of which this one offers a more than usual portion. Among other bits, you learn what the British railway had in common with ancient Roman chariot tracks; why, in prior centuries to the nineteenth, no respectable lady wore green; the derivation of the word nickname; and how the phrases mind your P’s and Q’s and cold turkey entered the language.

As always, Finch gives you the Victorian Age, in large and small, as with this brief description of the era’s inimitable decorating style, which Charles can’t stand:

. . . a sort of prodigious clutter, walls and tables crowded past elegance, every piece of cloth in the room double-or triple-embroidered, remnants of statuary, wretchedly heavy silver platters and ewers, big dark clocks, etchings of colossal ruins. The spare black-and-ivory elegance of Lenox’s childhood was gone now — submerged beneath a rockslide of things, objects.

Also noteworthy is how Finch takes care to show his detective’s mistakes, and not only because Lenox is learning his craft. Unlike Holmes, say, Lenox never carries the whiff of infallibility, so he’s that much more human. And in The Last Passenger, you see his maturation in more than one way, which is very satisfying. This is not just another mystery, or even just another Lenox mystery, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my work for Historical Novels Review, though I did not review it there.

Small Moments, Big As Life: This Is Happiness


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Review: This Is Happiness, by Niall Williams
Bloomsbury, 2019. 380 pp. $28

Just before Easter, in Faha, a small town in county Clare, two events take place, momentous for rural Ireland in 1957: It stops raining, and Father Coffey announces that electricity is coming. Equally important to seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe, who’s visiting his grandparents from Dublin — fleeing his decision to leave the seminary —Christy McMahon arrives to stay as a boarder. That draws keen interest in Faha, as newcomers do. However, Christy’s a wise, kind-hearted man in his sixties who looks as if he’s been around the world, which impresses Noel even more and offers precisely what he needs, a mentor who has plenty to teach but a diffident manner in imparting it. From this premise comes an unusual coming-of-age novel.

For the first thirty pages, you may think that there’s no story here, even granting Williams his extraordinary prose (pick a page; you’ll find something quotable), so that This Is Happiness promises to be a slog. And I’ll admit, for a while, every time I put the book down, I kept asking myself why I continued reading. Prose alone can’t carry me through a narrative; I don’t care who’s writing it. But every time I picked the book up again, I got lost in the storytelling, and now I feel foolish for having doubted. Plenty happens in this novel, only in small moments. But as our narrator, now grown old, observes of Faha and what he learned there, “Here’s the thing life teaches you: sometimes the truth can only be reached by exaggeration.”

So it is that the uncommon sunshine affects Faha in baroque ways; the erection of poles to string electrical wires creates outlandish drama; and Christy’s arrival to work for the electric company has another, secret motive behind it. Even Father Coffey’s position as the new, young priest in town alters the path of life, though the difference between him and his elder predecessor may seem small, at first. Legions of stories crop up to explain all these mysteries; everyone in town has a different opinion, and therefore a different version to share. Life’s fuller that way.

Poulnabrone dolmen, the Burren, county Clare, Ireland, 2005 (courtesy Steve Ford Elliott, via Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, This Is Happiness explores the power of storytelling and how a boy receives life lessons from it; in the process, the narrative sings an elegy to life gone by, without making judgments. The advent of the new, as with electricity and a younger man in the pulpit, will change Faha forever. But the alteration isn’t evil, it’s just life.

Noel will change too. He goes by Noe, a nice descriptive touch for a young man who’s not fully formed and well aware of it; he’s also a terrific narrator. He knows everyone’s flaws, including his own — the latter perhaps too much to expect from a seventeen-year-old, even in the confusion of retrospect — but he sees with clear eye, warm heart, and empathy for all. Here, he describes his grandparents’ house during the rainy season, which is to say, most of the time:

It was the smell of bread always baking, the smell of turf-smoke, the smell of onions, of boiling, the green tongue of boiled cabbage, the pink one of bacon with grey scum like sins rising, the smell of rhubarb that grew monstrous at the edge of the dung-heap, the smell of rain in all its iterations, the smell of distant rain, of being about to rain, of recent rain, of long-ago rain, the insipid smell of drizzle, the sweet one of downpour, the living smell of wool, the dead smell of stone, the metallic ghost stench of mackerel that disobeyed the laws of matter and like Jesus outlived itself by three days.

But don’t assume the unhurried pace or repetition of phrases implies that nothing moves in Faha. Things travel great distances, in fact, but in minds and hopes, the thwarting of desires and dreams, the accommodation to that, and in music (another important presence), and laughter, the necessary curative.

To be sure, This Is Happiness follows a rhythm unusual in modern life, partly because Faha isn’t modern, as we’d define it. But if you can accept that rhythm for what it is, you’ll be richly rewarded.

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

Insight: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free


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Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller
Europa, 2019. 410 pp. $19

One rainy night in 1809, a coach pulls up to a vacant country house in Somerset, discharging a badly injured man. Nell, the housekeeper, can’t tell whether it’s John Lacroix, master of the house, for he possesses few recognizable clothes or belongings, and facial hair and wounds obscure his features. However, Nell tends him; and yes, it’s John, an officer of hussars returned from a disastrous campaign in Corunna, Spain, against Napoleon. John slowly recovers from his physical wounds, pleasing Nell and his beloved sister, Lucy, but he’s emotionally out of sorts and refuses to speak of his war. And when a comrade visits to urge him to heal quickly and return to his regiment, John decides to travel instead and settles on Scotland as a destination. He’ll look for an island where he may find solitude and solace, though how he envisions those qualities remains vague, even to himself.

Meanwhile, two men have been sent, unofficially yet on high authority, to hunt him. Why they’ve targeted John is unclear, at first. All you know is that one of his seekers, Calley, is as vicious a brute as any who’s ever drawn breath. On sighting a man he’s never met, for example, he measures up the newcomer to guess whether he’d be his equal in a brawl. It’s Calley against the world, and he’ll come out swinging.

This brilliant, delicately written thriller has to do with a manhunt, obviously, but offers a significant twist. John’s hunting himself too, though he doesn’t know that yet, trying to figure out who he is. His entire life, he’s accepted a given version of himself and can’t see its constraints. Instinctively, he turns away from questions, especially the existential kind. But on his travels, he meets Emily, a freethinking woman who’s going blind, yet sees what he can’t (a lovely touch). As he learns to trust her, he opens himself up to insight and reflection — which is all very well, but two men are trailing him.

Death of Sir John Moore, British commander at Corunna, Spain, from an 1815 aquatint by William Heath, engraved by Thomas Sutherland (courtesy The Martial Achievements of Great Britain and her Allies from 1799-1815, by James Jenkins, via Wikimedia Commons)

To call a thriller “delicate” may sound strange, especially considering that this one, like many, portrays its share of violence. Yet the adjective fits. Miller’s is a subtle hand; he shows just about everything, letting you infer from his beautiful, lucid prose all you need to know while keeping John and Emily less open to themselves than to the reader. That’s extraordinary storytelling. Like a house assembled by artisans who take pride in details that few visitors or even residents would ever notice, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free reflects the author’s dedication to moments small and large, characters major or minor. Nell, the housekeeper, has an inner life, as does John’s sister, Lucy, though neither plays a lengthy role. Such loving attention extends even to characters with whom our protagonist never even interacts:

He would stroll while he was still free to do so, and he set off, walking away from the water and turning into a narrow street of gabled buildings, part of the city’s medieval guts. Through cellar windows he saw backs bent over benches, cutting, sewing. He saw through two windows — the whole body of a house — a garden where men were twisting rope. At the gates of a yard he saw three giants stripped to the waist, their skin blushed blue from some process they were resting from. They watched him as he passed. They looked like men made almost mad by what they did.

Note that this prose, which carries you through what might otherwise seem like a digression, puts you — and John — in the scene actively, conveys a notion of his character and an image of early nineteenth-century English life.

Also impressive, and what few authors succeed at, the villain has his due. Calley’s thoroughly repugnant, yet you glimpse the kind of life he’s had, and why he might have surrendered to his crueler instincts — all of it suggested, never announced.

Andrew Miller has written a splendid story that’s at once a page-turning novel of suspense and an inquiry into what defines freedom. I highly recommend Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, one of the finest novels I’ve read in several years.

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

The Survivor: The Good Cop


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Review: The Good Cop, by Peter Steiner
Severn, 2019. 185 pp. $29

As a cop, Detective Willi Geismeier has a steady job, something many people envy in the Munich of 1920. The collapse after the Great War has left Bavaria a wreck, like every German province. Munich is a city of desperation, destitution, theft, political gang violence, and hopelessness. The central government in Berlin struggles to keep the nation afloat, while there are many who wish to drag it down and seize power; Munich possesses more than its share of revolutionaries.

This is where Willi’s job becomes difficult, if not impossible, for so many crimes have political motivations, and ultranationalists have Munich’s judiciary in their pockets. Hard as it is for most people to credit, the most threatening movement, really a ragtag mob of thugs, hangers-on, and a few ultranationalist businessmen, calls itself the National Socialists. Its leader, who seems utterly disreputable and incompetent, is Adolf Hitler.

Marienplatz, Munich, after the failed beer-hall putsch of November 9, 1923. The lone figure standing above crowd level is Julius Streicher, later convicted at the Nuremberg trials and hanged (courtesy German Federal Archive, Bild 119-1486 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Willi’s involvement in these deadly currents begins when unidentified assailants throw a grenade into a newspaper office, killing or wounding some journalists working there. You might think that such a crime could not have taken place without multiple witnesses; yet somehow, the leads quickly grow cold. But Willi, recognized as Munich’s best detective, doesn’t give up, because he’s a thinker first, before he’s a civil servant, and he’s studied his Shakespeare:

Willi had learned from the English bard that lawful human behavior followed well-mapped social patterns. Every crime was a unique moment in human history, where human psychology and behavior ran off the rails in a very particular way. When you looked into crime thoroughly and deeply, as Willi had, it revealed dark, as yet uncharted corners of the human soul. Criminal activity oozed through civilization’s unmapped dark alleys in ways that were surprising, illuminating, and, for Willi, irresistible.

No one trusts Willi, because he follows his own nose rather than instructions, which scares everybody in times like those. What’s more, when enemies try to trap him, he never lets himself be pinned down. He’s a survivor, in other words, and you sense that no matter how relentlessly his superiors try to push him under, he’ll bob up somewhere else. Indeed, while the most ambitious members of the police sign on with the National Socialists, Willi keeps his own counsel (and a private cache of incriminating documents). For starters, he interviews Sophie Auerbach, a reporter badly injured in the newspaper bombing, and Maximilian Wolf, an artist with a remarkable facility for drawing quick portraits. From then on, the case never goes cold.

The Good Cop is an absolutely terrific, stunning book, but not a classic thriller. There’s no condensed time frame that circumstances shorten even further; the narrative covers more than twenty years. Consequently, the “no — and furthermore,” instead of getting in the characters’ (and, therefore, the reader’s) faces, haunts the background in ever-increasing ominousness, mirroring the Nazis’ rise to power. As such, Willi’s investigation progresses in fits and starts over time, fulfilling the proverb about the wheels of justice grinding slowly, and is all the more believable for it.

At every step, Steiner creates an atmosphere so chilling, you have a ringside seat at the prizefight between lunatic thuggery and civilization — and many who subscribe to the latter don’t even recognize they’re about to be pummeled. You see how the Party attracts sadists, ideologues, petty nationalists who blame their own troubles on others, the not-terribly-bright ordinary Joes, all of them on the make. Meanwhile you also have the Munich of prostitutes, legless veterans, picket lines, storm troopers, and businessmen in fancy cars.

Steiner’s narrative can sound didactic, and you can tell he’s written the book with a cause. Even so, he knows his history, and you never doubt that what you’re reading either could have happened or actually did. He further understands how that history resonates. Not for nothing does he have the Nazis say, “Make Germany great again,” or refer to “fake news” and its purveyors, while the crowd chants, “Lock them up!”

The Good Cop tells a gripping tale, a thriller that makes you think. I highly recommend it.

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

Killer Jewels: Cartier’s Hope


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Review: Cartier’s Hope, by M.J. Rose
Atria, 2020. 322 pp. $27

Vera Garland would be the envy of most New York women in 1910. Born to a socialite mother and a merchant father whose retail emporium is a household word, Vera has never wanted for any material possession. Nor would she lack the leisure to enjoy them, should she choose. But she doesn’t; she dreams of making her mark in journalism.

To that end, she writes a society gossip column in her gilded-set voice, while, as Vee Swann, she reports on back-alley abortions, tenement life, and corporate malfeasance. She’s got no time or interest in her mother’s plans for her, to wit, a wealthy husband and a career in society. The conflict splits the family, but Vera gets to do what she wants.

Maintaining Vera’s two different personae takes a great deal of sweat (and a little credulity on her friends’ parts, not to mention the reader’s). But it makes a great story, and getting trapped in one identity while needing to be in the other, though an old device, offers excellent possibilities, which Rose ably exploits. Vera wants revenge against the extortionist who brought about her uncle’s and father’s deaths within a week of each other. And the key to her scheme lies within Cartier’s, the world-class jewelers whose premises she may visit with ceremony and complimentary champagne as Vera Garland, but where, as Vee Swann, she’d never expect an audience.

The Hope Diamond, on display at the National Museum of Natural History, New York (courtesy David Bjorgen via Wikimedia Commons)

Her plan has to do with the Hope Diamond, whose lore of danger and ill fortune to its succession of owners furnishes grist for Pierre Cartier’s publicity mill. How that dovetails with bringing down an extortionist, I leave for you to discover.

Plot is by far the strongest aspect of Cartier’s Hope and just about the only reason to read the novel. It’s a good reason, though. In the interest of full disclosure, my taste runs toward character-driven narratives — as though you might not have guessed — because some plot-driven novels pay little or no attention to subtlety. So too here, in ways I’ll discuss further down. Yet I have to admire how Rose strings out the story, layering twist after twist, making her protagonist work, so that nothing comes easily, and the “no — and furthermore” feels genuine. Rose also keeps you guessing without tricking you. She’s a generous writer that way; if anyone falls for a misperception or misdirection, it’s Vera/Vee.

The plain prose never draws attention to itself, and Rose limits her descriptions largely to interiors, with sparse, thoughtful detail. The author loves New York, and it shows in the locales portrayed as they were, whether tenements, newsrooms, or the Plaza Hotel. I trust her research in general, though I did find one anachronism: Traffic lights didn’t exist back then.

More troublesome are the language and the characters, who speak and think like latter twentieth-century folk, or even those of the present day. I don’t just mean words or phrases like accessorize or reach out to, but the manner in which people discuss their ideas. Vee and her journalist friends, passionate about women’s rights, seem like retro creations, modern sensibilities and worldviews dropped into 1910. It doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like information dumps.

But it’s not just the political or social milieu that strikes me wrong. Vera’s father sounds like a gifted psychotherapist as well as a brilliant retailer, a wonderfully thoughtful, considerate man. He’s made one mistake, a whopper, but seems perfect otherwise. Ditto Vera’s love interest, who could be a midcentury intellectual. He’s done one bad thing too, but there are mitigating circumstances, to be sure. These people are too good to be true.

Rose often explains what a character’s trying to do or has just done when it’s obvious. That authorial hand not only feels condescending, as if the reader can’t be trusted to get the idea, but prompts you to wonder what other manipulations are taking place. A skeptical reader (guilty, Your Honor) might suspect sleight-of-hand in the storytelling.

Still, Cartier’s Hope offers that intriguing plot, with legends about jewels thrown in. If that’s your style, you could do a lot worse.

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

What It Means to Be a Woman: Light Changes Everything


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Review: Light Changes Everything, by Nancy E. Turner
St. Martin’s, 2020. 290 pp. $28

Mary Pearl Prine isn’t your average seventeen-year-old. She can ride, shoot, and rope, which, in the Arizona Territory of 1907, would seem pretty usual, except that few other young women of her acquaintance can do likewise, or care to. Mary Pearl can also speak her mind — sometimes — and can draw, which sets her even further apart. What’s more, she dreams of being an artist, and against her mother’s wishes, enrolls in Wheaton College in Chicago to study art.

Just before she leaves, however, Aubrey Hannah, a handsome, moneyed, citified lawyer, proposes marriage. Having read Jane Austen, Mary Pearl has heard that a woman needs a wealthy husband to succeed in life. Though Aubrey’s shotgun approach to betrothal — grab and kiss, importune for the rest — puts her off, she’s physically attracted. Still, she has just enough gumption to ask him, by letter, to wait until she’s finished her two-year course of study.

But college upends Mary Pearl’s world. She’s never before been the butt of snobbish humor for her manners, speech, dress, or frontier skills, which quickly become legend around campus. But she learns valuable lessons about growing up, not least how to exercise her nascent gift for standing up for herself, especially when she feels she’s being treated as a second-class citizen, whether as a Westerner or a woman. Still, though she finds nice dresses and urban conveniences seductive, at root, she suspects the city and its ways:

What a wagonload of nonsense was life in this big city. Not a speck of interest in where their water came from, nor whether there was enough for their neighbors to eat. Just busy with doing things and having things I wouldn’t even know I didn’t have, which included crystal punch bowls and harp lessons.

Turner’s storytelling range in this coming-of-age novel includes betrayal, sexual and armed violence, the pain of longing, and hilarious situations. From the start, you sense Mary Pearl’s spirit and confusion about asserting herself, and I like how the author refuses to let her rush into choices she must make, given the familial and societal pressures she feels as a woman. You also understand where Mary Pearl gets her feminism, from her Aunt Sarah, who’s a real rip, and who can trade fire in words or bullets with anybody, male or female. From her, Mary Pearl has learned she has a place in the world, and she holds that thought tenaciously, even if she can’t always express it to others.

Whether in spoken word or contained thought, however, Mary Pearl’s voice lets fly. When Mama says that only hussies go to college, Mary Pearl reflects on her well-used, hand-me-down clothes, ratty workboots, and ragged sunbonnet, “hardly the picture of a fallen woman, unless a person meant she’d fallen down a mine shaft.” Witnessing her first (and probably last) ballet in Chicago, “it was embarrassing watching all those men and women tromping around in their tightest underwear and spinning and leaping with their legs and arms held out peculiar. I expected any second that someone would split their britches and all kinds of buck-naked silliness could follow, but it didn’t happen.”

I’d have preferred the villain of this piece to show more depth. He’s so completely odious, convinced of his power to buy whatever he wants and have everything his own way, that he’s cardboard. I believe what he does; it’s not that. I just want nuance to him, maybe a window on why he behaves that way.

At times in Light Changes Everything, I wonder whether Turner’s indulging in reverse snobbery, depicting her city folk as less caring or more prejudiced than country folk, to a point approaching caricature. Except close to the end, the city characters generally seem superficial, selfish, or small-minded, with motives so very different from Mary Pearl’s that neither she nor anybody else can really grasp them. Rather, I’d have liked to see her find more to respect in them and vice versa, however awkward the culture clash. The narrative seldom allows them to view her as more than a bauble or an entertaining object of conversation, whereas they appear to exist purely as foils, when they might have worth in their own right.

But Light Changes Everything has enough humor, strength, and pure delight to power through, and the novel makes an excellent coming-of-age story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher through my connection to Historical Novels Review.

Fission in Two Parts: Hannah’s War


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Review: Hannah’s War, by Jan Eliasberg
Little, Brown, 2020. 301 pp. $17

In April 1945, U.S. intelligence has uncovered a security leak at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project is building the atomic bomb. Suspicion falls most heavily on the scientists who’ve circulated a petition demanding ethical constraints on the weapon they’ve worked to invent, whose destructive power remains theoretical. What’s more, one signatory has just sent a telegram to her German counterparts in Europe, presumably to convey military secrets.

Said scientist, the only woman at Los Alamos with a high security clearance, is Dr. Hannah Weiss, an Austrian-Jewish physicist. She’s beautiful, brilliant, and tough to corner, a job that falls to Jack Delaney, superspy and seasoned interrogator. He has seventy-two hours to find out what, if anything, Hannah has told her friends in Germany.

Eliasberg tells this story in two narratives. With the Los Alamos story, she seamlessly integrates Hannah’s prewar work at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where, despite her exceptional gifts, she’s consigned to a basement laboratory, her findings ignored. “Jewish science” can possess no truth in Nazi Germany. Eliasberg says that she has based Hannah on Lise Meitner, who received no credit for discovering nuclear fission, because Otto Hahn, with whom she had worked closely, left her name off the paper they published in 1939 so that their research would be taken seriously. Further, at his Nobel address in 1944, he conveniently omitted mentioning her. That in itself is a story, and though the novel follows a different path from her actual life, the Berlin narrative raises similar historical issues and derives tension from them.

Unfortunately, the Los Alamos sections don’t measure up. To be fair, Eliasberg, a screenwriter, keeps the pages turning rapidly throughout, and her dialog punches hard. When Jack and Hannah square off, the verbal jousting sets off sparks. Better yet, the cat-and-mouse contest does more than furnish the necessities of thrillerdom; the interrogation covers questions of science and morality, the power of life and death, responsibility to individuals versus society at large. I also believe the re-creation of Los Alamos, with its hard partying, personal rivalries, and the tension and desperation of discovery with the world’s future at stake.

But I don’t accept the premise. They’re too quick in Los Alamos to slap handcuffs on Hannah and string her up, the stated justification for which runs as follows: Why would a Jewish refugee collaborate with the enemy? Because she must have slept with that enemy. I’m sure such sexist, anti-Semitic logic had its followers; General Leslie Groves, who commanded the Los Alamos installation, was a nasty piece of work, bigoted and ambitious, as the author portrays him here. But that army or intelligence brass would rush to try Hannah before a military tribunal, threatening to hang her before you can say, “Albert Einstein,” stretches credulity. They would certainly have done more to figure out which secrets she’d passed, and what they were worth.

Are her friends working for Germany or the Soviets? The narrative waffles, and faced with that vagueness, the American spymasters plan to kill off famous German scientists right and left, a hasty, perplexing verdict. It’s also puzzling how, even in April 1945, everyone assumes the European conflict will go on forever, ignoring how Germany was in its last gasps.

In reality, battles still took place, but the Reich posed a greater threat to its citizens judged defeatist than its foreign enemies, and was certainly in no condition to develop or deliver an atomic weapon. Yet, somehow, the Los Alamos scientists greet the news of Germany’s collapse as a surprise.

With the exception of Groves, the army and intelligence characters feel flat, and the way they strut and shout gives the impression that they’re trying not to admit how empty and wrongheaded they are. Even Jack, who receives more authorial care, strikes me as a stock character, the rough, tough guy with the usual manly trappings, who needs the right woman to let him be vulnerable. His role in the novel’s resolution, a clumsy, predictable section, wraps the story briskly but, like the rest of the Los Alamos plot, remains forgettable.

Compare that to the Berlin narrative. As before, surprises and twists abound, but the people seem natural, deeper, more complex. Special kudos to Eliasberg for creating characters whose Jewishness feels real, not a matter of convenience, as evidence of which they spend time and effort trying to practice their faith and cope with anti-Semitic decrees. But the non-Jewish scientists who believe they have their handlers by the tail, only to find out the opposite, make an impression too. As a result, the tension feels higher here than in the other narrative, even though the bomb hasn’t been built yet, and the threats against Hannah are only potential.

Given all that, would the Lise Meitner/Hannah Weiss narrative have made a thriller by itself? It’s a great story, that’s for sure, the gripping part of Hannah’s War.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via an independent publicist, in return for an honest review.

Speaking Her Mind: The Eulogist


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Review: The Eulogist, by Terry Gamble
Morrow, 2019. 310 pp. $27

When fifteen-year-old Olivia (Livvie) Givens and her family emigrate from Ireland to America in 1819, disaster haunts them from the start. Their ship nearly founders in an Atlantic storm, so the captain jettisons most of their worldly goods, including a piano. When they finally settle in Cincinnati, Livvie’s mother dies in childbirth, and her father leaves on a river boat headed for New Orleans.

Livvie and her two brothers must now fend for themselves, barely possessing the proverbial pot, and, as she notes, the future looks most unpromising. Her elder brother James, astute, ambitious, and hard-working, may have a head for business, but he lacks both capital or gift for conversation, so he’s unlikely to attract investors, let alone a wife. The other brother, Erasmus, “not right in the head,” has no talents except seduction and debauchery and can’t be trusted to carry out any task James gives him.

However, James digs in, and over the years, his grit and determination pay off. Erasmus turns preacher, wandering off, abandoning his responsibilities, as usual. Livvie picks up various pieces of their lives and takes political stands that cause an uproar, as when she expresses doubts about God’s supremacy. The good people of Cincinnati don’t take freethinking lying down, and Livvie’s observations provide a vivid picture of striving America in those years, with all the flies, smells, and pretensions, not to mention political strife.

Cincinnati, seen from the north, 1841, by Klauprech and Menzel. The foreground depicts the Miami and Erie Canal; the Ohio River and Kentucky are in the background (courtesy New York Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s my favorite aspect of The Eulogist, how Gamble paints her American portrait with finesse and well-chosen detail. Even better, Livvie’s wit makes you laugh:

Clearly, she had her cap set on my brother. Hatsepha, with her wide, bland face and badly spelled name that gave a nod to the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Today, her head was a bowery of satin roses stuck all about. I fancied a swarm of bees might rush through the window in a frenzy of pollination.

But just when you think you’re getting a novel of manners, the narrative and tone shift. Cincinnati lies close to Kentucky, where slavery is legal, and as the years progress, that issue dominates public life. Livvie, who begins the novel naturally opposed to slavery while refusing to take a meaningful stand, becomes an ardent abolitionist, though for her safety, she must be discreet. I like how Gamble handles the transformation, which extends to Livvie’s influence on her family.

I also admire how, with authority over the smallest intricacies, the author demonstrates how the slaves suffer, how risky and terrifying their attempts to flee to Ohio, and the lengths to which patrols and bounty hunters searching for runaways and their “abettors” take brutal revenge. Along the way, Campbell creates memorable minor characters, like the cranky Kentucky store owner who’s an “abettor,” and Salmon P. Chase, the ambitious attorney well known to history, who defends a slave in a case in which Livvie has a central interest.

That said, The Eulogist’s shift in tone and substance comes as a surprise. I would have been better prepared had I consulted the jacket flap, but, as my regular readers know, I don’t until after I’ve read the book. In this case, I’m doubly glad. Not only does this one make the shortlist for the Worst Ever Jacket Copy Prize, going on forever and revealing far too much plot, you might think The Eulogist is more essay than novel, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even so, I have to say that the two halves of the book don’t entirely fit, and not just because the voice changes. Does the first part serve only to cement Livvie’s iconoclasm, so that you can accept her unusual political stance and activities later? I don’t think that’s necessary; and I object to how the author contrives the mystery of certain characters’ origins, which involves a trick or three and yet another layer to a narrative that’s complicated enough. And as long as we’re talking about devices, neither Livvie nor her brothers even think of their late mother, the stillborn sibling who died with her, or their father, vanished forever. That seems a little convenient.

Still, The Eulogist makes for fine storytelling, and I think that those readers who pick it up will be rewarded.

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

Family Snapshots: Summer of ’69


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Review: Summer of ’69, by Elin Hilderbrand
Little, Brown, 2019. 418 pp. $28

For Kate Foley Levin, the annual family pilgrimage in summer 1969 to her mother’s home in Nantucket will feel sparse and lonely. Her only son has been drafted and is an infantry grunt in Vietnam; any moment, she expects the telegram announcing his death. Kate responds by withdrawing to finds solace in the bottle. Meanwhile, her eldest, pregnant daughter can’t leave Boston to join the family, for her due date is weeks away, and she’s too uncomfortable to travel. Said daughter also suspects her geeky MIT husband, who consults for the Apollo space program, is cheating on her. The next eldest daughter, a contentious soul, has annoyed Kate by making a mess of college and getting arrested at protest marches. But she won’t be there to bother anyone, because she has a job on Martha’s Vineyard, where, unbeknownst to Mom, she falls for a Harvard man who happens to be black.

Jessie Levin, half-sister to these siblings (her father, David, is Kate’s second husband) needs her mother more than ever. Just turned thirteen, she feels utterly bereft without her family, especially her half-brother, to whom she’s very close. She’s also fighting several losing battles, most notably with her bigoted, vicious grandmother, Exalta, which Kate might have helped with, but forget that. One firefight concerns Jessie’s identification with her (purely cultural) Jewishness, a link she shares with her father; she’s freaked out that Exalta’s an anti-Semite.

So we’ve got the Vietnam War, to which the Levins and Foleys are opposed, and a son at risk. We have possible marital infidelity, alcoholism, political protest, interracial romance, and anti-Semitism. As if that weren’t enough, we have sexual and physical abuse, feminism, Jessie’s sexual awakening, and abortion. And oh, yes, Jessie’s reading The Diary of Anne Frank for school. Summer of ’69 purports to be beach reading, but that’s one hell of a load.

Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface, July 21, 1969 (courtesy NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)

What we don’t have is the Sixties — the lingo, the vibe, the sense that this was an unusual decade, the belief that so much was possible yet so much was wrong, and that you felt compelled to take sides and make a statement. Hilderbrand shows none of that. She’s strong on fashion, issues, and headlines, but those are period details, museum exhibits. The summer of 1969 was my last before my senior year of high school, so we share a fascination for that moment (she was born that July). But, much as I enjoy re-creations of that time and salute her attempt, I don’t think she gets it.

In her favor, she can keep the pages turning. She’s a keen observer of family dynamics, and she manages to thread several narratives without missing a stitch. In her world, people don’t talk to each other, and the closer they are by blood, the less they say, because they have secrets to hide. She also has a friendly, drop-in-for-a-chat-dear-reader tone that makes her narrative pleasant company, like an easy-listening radio station.

But Hilderbrand’s ease cuts two ways. Despite the pain the characters suffer and the issues she raises, which couldn’t be more momentous, the treatment feels one-dimensional, like posed family snapshots. Everything seems too far away to hurt anybody for real. With so much simmering conflict and so little honesty, you’d think more would explode, and that’s why I finished the book. I wanted to know how Hilderbrand would resolve these conflicts—and I now know I wandered into Never-Never Land.

One problem’s the characterization. Kate’s controlling and craven by turns, and it’s not clear why. David’s a good guy with no depth, and the older sisters represent themes but lack compelling internal lives. Jesse’s the only character who seems reflective about what matters:

Jessie thought all grown-ups lived in a different atmosphere, one that was like a cool, clear gel. Adults had problems, Jessie knew — money and their children — but one of the benefits of reaching adulthood, she thought, was that you outgrew the raw, hot, chaotic emotions of adolescence.

Yet this girl, intelligent and emotionally tuned in, gets upset that Anne Frank dies; she thinks the book shouldn’t have ended like that. The Holocaust! Who knew? Hilderbrand warps her narrative up, down, and sideways to let her characters find redemption and forgiveness and throws in the world’s most famous Holocaust victim, as though Anne defined those values. But don’t get me started on writers who co-opt a Jewish girl as a Christian saint, a Joan of Arc who turned the other cheek–a travesty encouraged, in part, by Anne’s father, who sanitized his daughter’s diary for publication.

Let’s stay with Jessie, a perceptive, nominally Jewish child whose brother’s in the Viet Cong’s crosshairs. Her heart’s been broken, and she has a sense of painful reality, even if she doesn’t always understand the why or how. Maybe she unconsciously connects her brother’s fate with Anne’s. They’re both so good; how can they die?

That’s a worthy question, but Hilderbrand doesn’t stay there. Having shown how bad things can almost happen to good people, she bails them out by snapping her authorial fingers, relieving them of the hard work of living. Maybe that’s what a beach book is supposed to do, keep you at a distance from work. But in relying on that illusion of substance, Summer of ’69 trivializes its subject matter.

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