Ancient Curses: The Children of Jocasta


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Review: The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes
Europa, 2018. 295 pp. $18

In the ancient Greek city-state of Thebes, a young girl is affianced without warning, warmth, or joy to Laius, the king. Jocasta, though wishing to be dutiful, can’t help think that her parents don’t care about her—they favor her much-younger brother, Creon—and have betrayed her for the expected advantages of the marriage.

More bewildering yet, right after the wedding, Laius disappears for weeks in the mountains with his drinking and hunting buddies, leaving his young bride alone with a few attendants. Why did he marry her, then? Wasn’t it to produce heirs that would secure the throne and prevent future conflict in Thebes?

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres,1808, Oedipus and the Sphinx (courtesy Louvre Museum, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Good luck with that. Thebes is home to the tortured souls already mentioned, later joined by Oedipus and the children he’ll have with Jocasta: Eteocles and Polynices, the quarrelsome princes; and Antigone and Ismene, their devoted sisters. These names live today largely because of Sophocles, who dramatized their tragic ends and the curse that hung over their family.

But Haynes, who writes in her afterword that Sophocles is only one classical source of the Theban myths, has taken them in a different, fascinating direction. Narrating alternately between Jocasta’s point of view and Ismene’s—with an occasional snippet from Oedipus and Creon—Haynes recounts a version of events that has more to do with passion and politics than oracles, messengers, and hubris, though those crucial elements do appear.

The author retells the story from a feminine (and feminist) viewpoint, relying on voices that are traditionally walk-ons (especially Ismene’s), but that’s just the surface. The reader will instantly recognize what lies beneath. First off, Haynes has reimagined Jocasta as a neglected child who would look upon the sudden, unexpected advent of the young Oedipus as the promise of the love she never received.

For his part, he’s the clever, willful operator who’s crushed the Sphinx (here in less mythical guise) and stolen a march on his rivals, which accounts for his instant popularity but has implications for how he’ll behave down the road.

I admire this approach, and if the result seems modern, not Sophoclean, for the most part, it works. As with Joan, Katherine J. Chen’s novel, The Children of Jocasta will strike some readers as revisionist. So what? The treatment here still contains human truth and gives much to think about.

Haynes’s Thebans are less concerned with divine will or their place in the cosmos than their desires, ambitions, political power, morality, and what the people outside the palace will think of them. Some of these mythic figures are more pious than others, but none believe that the gods have sealed their fates and they’re mere puppets. Quite the contrary; The Children of Jocasta involves contests of will for high stakes.

What’s also interesting is how the men in this family, or most of them, love their wives, daughters, and sisters. Fathers want daughters, and nobody talks of exposing girl infants on hillsides. Women have secondary roles to men, but there’s no doubt that queens matter or that they hold power. Ismene’s love for her family helps drive the action, and both her father and uncle care for her, despite what else they do.

As a dramatic critic, Aristotle famously wrote that plot matters above all. Since the ancient playwrights could not change the myths, that makes sense. But here, we have a character-driven novel based on those myths. I find that intriguing.

Haynes’s prose brings Thebes to life, as with this passage, when the newly crowned Jocasta visits the marketplace, amazed at the finery she’s never seen. Nobody recognizes her, and it hasn’t sunk in yet that she can have anything she wants:

On another stall, her eye was caught by piles of clothes in every colour: bright dresses which she longed to touch, every shade of red between orange and pink, every shade of yellow between saffron and unripe lemons. She walked into the thronging aisle and reached out to feel the deep blue fabric of a simple shift dress. It was crisp and unworn and would be the right length without alteration.

However, I wish Haynes tried less hard to make her story and characters “relatable.” She’s created a physician-turned-tutor, Sophon, whom Ismene reveres, and who plays a key role in events. That’s fine. But Sophon’s philosophy, which stresses the influence of others’ choices on one’s own and questions the gods’ power, even their existence, seems a stretch. I like this man and his steadying, kindly influence, yet I wonder if he’s meant to reassure us these people aren’t so different from ourselves. But Haynes’s entire approach has already made that clear, so why does the narrative need that from him?

A couple minor tics add to my sense that the author has worried—needlessly—that we won’t see ourselves in these troubled Thebans. She uses nicknames, which sometimes threw me—Ani, Isy, Eteo—and laughed or smiled or other improbable verbs instead of said. I can’t help think of A Thousand Ships, Haynes’s more recent book, and my sense of it, that she lacks confidence in what she’s created. If so, she’s a much better author than she knows.

The Children of Jocasta is a vivid, thought-provoking novel, well worth your time.

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

Making Her Way: The Streel


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Review: The Streel, by Mary Logue
U. of Minnesota, 2020. 216 pp. $23

In May 1877, Brigid Reardon, fifteen, and her sixteen-year-old brother, Seamus, leave Galway for New York. The potato blight has returned to Ireland, and the English landlord, wishing to be rid of as many tenants as possible, pays their passage.

It’s a cruel blow to Brigid, to whom family is all, but she means to make her way. And with her spirit, intelligence, and willingness to work hard, she has the resources to see it through. She also appreciates the adventure for what it is—when she has the luxury to do so.

But it won’t be easy. While Seamus and two friends seek work on the railroad in the Midwest, Brigid toils in a Brooklyn boardinghouse. By a stroke of luck, she gets a recommendation to be a maid in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the home of the wealthy Mr. Hunt, who owns mining interests.

Brigid likes her job and her employers, who seem kind, tolerant people. Their opulent lifestyle, which benefits her in dribs and drabs, amazes her:

After I had lit all thirty candles, I stood back and looked at the room. The light from the candles made the gold leaf in the plaster ceiling shine all the brighter. Like a fairy castle it was. My mother would never believe such splendor existed. I would write and try to describe it in my next letter and explain how on the feast of Thanksgiving the Americans ate more food in a day than my family had eaten in a week.

But the Hunts’ rakish, handsome son, Charlie, makes advances to Brigid that she has a hard time repelling. And when she receives a letter from home announcing her mother’s death, Brigid decides to leave St. Paul for Deadwood, South Dakota, where Seamus and his friends have put down a claim on a gold mine.

S. J. Morrow’s 1876 photograph of Deadwood for the War Department (courtesy National Archives at College Park via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Shortly after her arrival, however, Seamus’s girlfriend, Lily, is found stabbed to death, and he was the last person to see her alive. Fearful for her brother’s safety and convinced of his innocence, Brigid urges him to flee. That looks bad, but the local sheriff is reputedly anything but just or impartial, so if Seamus sticks around, he’s likely to hang. Brigid vows to clear his name and find the real killer, despite advice from all quarters that this is no job for a woman and dangerous besides.

Since Lily’s corpse doesn’t show up until page 51, Logue takes pains to establish her protagonist’s character, the setting, and circumstances. I admire her confidence to wait, and I like how she handles the immigrant story, which seems smoother than the scenes right after the crime, in fact. But the investigation narrative soon settles in.

I do wonder at a couple facets, not least the miners’ luck at finding gold, and the modern echoes I hear behind certain stretches of dialogue. One of Seamus’s friends seems idealized too. But Logue’s storytelling carries the day.

The subplot, which deals with Charlie Hunt’s visits to Deadwood, lends force to the narrative. He’s the only other important character who has angles and edges, and Brigid can’t tell whether they make him interesting or dangerous. He’s there to dicker for the miners’ claim on behalf of his father and to resume his pursuit of her. But is he merely trying to seduce her, or does he mean what he says, a permanent connection? Her confusion and wavering opinion adds to the tension.

Her sleuthing, however, is neither particularly effective nor methodical. Rather, things happen in front of her, and she takes note, so The Streel isn’t your classic detective story. Brigid does try to interview men who might have wanted Lily for themselves, resented Seamus’s claim on her, and killed her out of jealousy. That widens the pool of suspects.

But Brigid also hears universal laughter at her claim that her brother intended to marry Lily, who, they say, was hardly the marrying kind. Brigid, though schooled in certain aspects of life, has never met a prostitute before; Deadwood’s sexual mores bewilder her in several contexts, blatant or covert.

Consequently, The Streel (the word means “harlot” in Gaelic) has much to say about propriety, a moving target in such a place, and the double standard. As an attractive young woman in a town overwhelmingly male, Brigid draws attention, not always flattering, especially when the less polite citizens jump to conclusions about her character, which they can’t manage to keep to themselves.

Logue pretties up nothing about Deadwood. You see the place for what it is, a charmless, muddy hole in the ground where people are chasing their fortunes—or stranded in the failed attempt—and not always careful as to methods. Unfortunately, the author tries to pretty up a couple aspects of her story toward the end, rushing through transitions that should have required more struggle. Nevertheless, The Streel is an engaging mystery and immigrant story.

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

When the Wheels Come Off: The Mitford Secret


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Review: The Mitford Secret, by Jessica Fellowes
Minotaur, 2023. 365 pp. $29

It’s late December 1941, and the Luftwaffe is pounding London. Deborah Mitford, daughter in a famous family related by marriage to the duke of Devonshire, arranges a house party at Chatsworth, the ducal estate. Among others, she invites Louisa Sullivan, onetime nursemaid of her childhood, now a private detective in London, and Louisa’s six-year-old daughter, Maisie.

As a guest where once she was a servant, Louisa worries that beyond Deborah and one other Mitford sister, Nancy, the aristocrats will resent her presumption. Louisa’s also missing her husband, Guy, the other half of their detective agency, who must remain in London.

With such a large cast, which includes Fred Astaire’s sister, Adele, and Kathleen Kennedy, sister to future politicians—both women have married Devonshires, or hope to—the mystery takes a while to set up. Then comes a village woman, uninvited, Mrs. Hoole, who insists the bluebloods check “the vestibule” for a vital object.

Sure enough, Louisa leads the charge and unearths a bloodied maidservant’s cap. Mrs. Hoole persuades the Mitfords to let her conduct a séance, during which it’s revealed that a maid was murdered at Chatsworth in 1916. Louisa sets out to investigate.

Imperial Japanese Navy photo of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941 (courtesy U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Neither the Mitfords nor the local constabulary want her to discover anything that might embarrass the family, even after another death occurs. Fellowes creates the social maze of country gentility through which the London commoner wanders, with plenty of “no—and furthermore” to hamper her investigation. The story evokes old tropes: the immense, creepy manse, with more rooms than anyone can count; a séance; an old crime that cries out for justice. But Fellowes does just enough to make this narrative her own.

The author also has a keen eye for domestic detail. By chance, I visited the grounds of Chatsworth a half-century ago but never entered the house. This is part of what I missed:

Louisa was in serious danger of believing she was in an H. G. Wells novel and had been magically transported to Rome in a flying car. Ahead of them was a wide staircase that went up to a gallery, the ornate black and gold of the banister circumnavigating the room as a balcony railing. The floor was black and white chequered marble and a fire blazed in a hearth to the side—which did nothing to prevent the room from feeling freezing cold—and there were columns with marble busts atop.

The American guests aren’t the only ones with star power, for the Mitfords are quite a family. Daughter Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists leader, and sister Unity admires Hitler. Diana’s in prison and Unity’s psychologically disturbed, never left alone, whereas another sister, Jessica, in the United States, is mourning her husband, recently killed in action. Consequently, there are conflicts and divisions within this remarkable clan.

Unfortunately, Fellowes resolutely skims the surface, never getting deeper than the famous names. The characters have only a dominant trait or two and no inner lives to speak of. Louisa has no visible flaw except an impulsive way of asking questions, without which she wouldn’t be a private detective. Clichés like “supercilious sneer” punctuate scenes in which Louisa has tried and failed to elicit information from tight-lipped sources.

But even those shortcomings would matter less if the story made sense; about halfway through, the wheels come off. An RAF officer stationed near Chatsworth somehow allows the family and guests to visit the airfield—they even sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire—and he subsequently warns of a forthcoming air raid, many hours away. Nobody wonders how or why any of this could happen, so when the plot turns on the officer’s words and actions, they’re amazed. Right.

How frustrating to read a mystery, trying to think along with the detective, only to discover that logic doesn’t apply. Forget about placing yourself in the story, wondering how you’d react in a given circumstance, arguably the whole point of reading a novel. There’s nothing to hold onto amid the contrivance.

The historical background, or lack thereof, feels similarly tricked up. At least twice, the narrative refers to “fighting in France” or “men at the front,” phrases from 1916, not December 1941. Fellowes seems not to have heard of Dunkerque or the German occupation of France. A minor point, perhaps, yet telling; she doesn’t seem to have heard of Pearl Harbor, either.

This story begins only ten days after Japan attacked, and by the time the guests gather at Chatsworth, Japanese forces are ripping through Malaya and battering the gates of Singapore, both British possessions. The wheels have come off, for the world at large and the British Empire. But the Mitfords seem to feel nothing about this, nor do their American guests, citizens of a suddenly belligerent nation.

What are we supposed to make of that? Perhaps nothing, for this book is part of a best-selling series, its final volume.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Unions, Exploitation, and the Kitchen Sink: Gilded Mountain


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Review: Gilded Mountain, by Kate Manning
Scribner, 2022. 445 pp. $28

In April 1907, Sylvie Pelletier’s Québecois family uproots from Rutland, Vermont, to join her father in Moonstone, Colorado, where he works as a marble quarryman. Sylvie, just short of her seventeenth birthday, has trouble speaking up for herself, perhaps suggestive of her mixed legacy. Her father’s vigor and zest for life have encouraged romantic dreams and a wish to be daring, whereas her mother’s always telling her what girls can’t do and reminding her to pray her rosary.

Right away, you understand Sylvie’s yearning and fanciful notions:

Even as they melted, the stars of snow in my hand provoked my secret longing, impacted like a boil behind the sternum. A red, unspeakable greed. For what? To have, to keep it. The crystal beauty and the oxygen, ferny diadems of lace in the air.

Home will stifle her; rescue comes from a job offer from Katrina Redmond, newspaper editor and publisher, a true-blue friend to unions and the working person. More important, K.T., as she’s known, tries to teach her young charge to answer questions, steer clear of the wrong men, and stick up for her principles. And since Moonstone belongs to the Padgett Fuel and Stone Company, speaking one’s mind can be dangerous.

Padgett withholds wages in lieu of scrip, good only at the company store, which charges extortionate prices. Clearing snow from the tracks so that stone may travel to market is unpaid labor. The company charges high rents for workers’ shacks that don’t keep out the wind, yet step out of line, and you’ll be evicted, owing money you can’t pay. Shifts run twelve or fourteen hours, fifteen minutes off for lunch or dinner—go a minute over, and you’ll be docked.

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones, union organizer, as she appeared between 1910 and 1915 (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Sylvie needs no education in these practices, only in how the company gets away with them, and how to take notes. So when Inge, alleged Belgian countess and mistress of the Padgett manse, hires Sylvie as a private secretary because she types well and speaks French, K.T. isn’t that upset. The newspaper publisher figures she’ll have a source within the seat of plutocracy.

I admire Gilded Mountain for the prose, the themes, and the narrative about Padgett as an exploitive corporation, unchecked by law or common decency. The story about the fight for a decent wage never goes out of style. However, a lot gets in the way, in part because of a kitchen-sink approach to corporate abuses, which feels over the top—and is needless, given the novel’s strengths. And despite all that, there’s something missing, oddly enough.

The kitchen-sink problem includes two romantic plot lines when one would have done just fine. Jasper (Jace) Padgett, ne’er-do-well company scion, is drinking his way through college, where he dabbles with great thoughts, and apparently returns to Moonstone so he can break promises. I’d have thought Sylvie would reject him after the second or third meeting, if not sooner, particularly when she has interest from George Lonahan, itinerant union organizer, who’s easier to talk to, more reliable, and sees her more clearly than Jace does.

Even less explicable, Sylvie swallows the company line that the reports Inge writes about the workers’ living conditions will lead to improvements. I don’t see how. Sylvie knows the squalor in which the quarry families live, and she also knows that it persists despite previous reports.

Consequently, I can’t help thinking that Sylvie must appear hopelessly naïve on one side but a perceptive observer on the other so that our heroine—and the reader—may be instructed, grain by grain, in just how despicable the company is. It’s as if Padgett’s cold-blooded practices, vividly described and embodied by its loathsome foreman, don’t get the message across.

Furthermore, I hear an authorial voice behind Sylvie’s sometimes tendentious statements about the moral, political, and economic problems she sees, and in portents like “These were the laughable dreams from which I was soon to be waked.” Manning’s narrative needs no gloss, and her storytelling requires no devices to pique the reader’s interest.

Another excess is King Leopold II of Belgium’s visit to the manse. I don’t mind fictional uses of real historical figures, so long as they serve a genuine purpose; I loved the scenes with Mother Jones, the self-avowed hell-raising union advocate. But Leopold seems dragged in to evoke his infamous plunder of the Congo, which has nothing to do with the main story, and to tempt Sylvie to sleep with him and make her fortune. That’s the stuff of melodrama, which unfortunately taints other aspects of the novel.

What’s missing in all this is an authentic villain, one whose character is fleshed out enough so that he’s not merely a mouthpiece for villainy. But that doesn’t happen in Gilded Mountain. While I read the book, I hissed the bad guys and cheered for the heroines and heroes, but once I closed the cover, I got to wondering whether I’d been entertained or lectured.

Gilded Mountain has fine elements, but I wish Manning had backed off enough to let them work better.

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

What a State They’re In: Homestead


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Review: Homestead, by Melinda Moustakis
Flatiron, 2023. 256 pp. $28

In 1956, without even a proper map, Lawrence Beringer stakes claim to 150 acres in the Alaska Territory and is called a tenderfoot for his trouble. No surprise that shortly afterward, he sets eyes on Marie Kubala at a tavern and immediately asks her to marry him. She accepts.

What an arresting, unusual premise, which parallels the main characters’ surroundings. If marriage is a frontier, consider that the Alaska Territory has been lobbying the federal government to grant statehood. But just as Alaska’s residents can’t predict how that change will affect them, neither Lawrence nor Marie have a clue what lies in store, whether it concerns homesteading or each other.

President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Alaska Statehood Act, July 1958 (courtesy U.S. National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Lawrence, son of a failed Minnesota farmer who has also failed at managing diners, is determined to succeed. Life has brought him nothing to call his own, but he’ll satisfy the requirements to prove his claim if it kills him.

A Korean War veteran in his midtwenties who received an early, honorable discharge under hazy circumstances, he carries a shameful secret from that experience. But he doesn’t talk about it—or anything—and probably smiles, oh, maybe once a month. However, he knows he wants a dozen children, or thinks he does. That’s a secret too, and, it seems, the reason he wishes to marry.

As for his bride, Marie’s Texas childhood was loveless except from her sister, Sheila, who lives in Anchorage with her husband. The girls’ mother left when they were young, and their grandmother, who took them in, gave them nothing but lectured them on the vast debt they owed her. Marie, visiting Alaska to see Sheila, jumps at the chance to escape. And Lawrence seems physically strong and capable in practical matters.

But her new husband shies away from sex or even affection (though he does make her pregnant rather soon), dislikes conversation, and shows no interest in Marie or her past. He also discourages questions, so that, even after a few months, she thinks she knows nothing about him.

Two flashpoints upset her. As she nears her time to give birth, she asks to do so in a hospital, and he refuses, saying they don’t have the money—only to dream, out loud, about buying costly farm equipment. He doesn’t dare reveal he shudders about being “trapped” in a building where she’s bleeding. (Tough luck, big guy.) Moreover, when Marie asks that when they prove the claim, her name goes on the deed too, Lawrence resents this mightily.

By making Lawrence over-the-top cold, nasty, and ungiving, Moustakis has set up a peculiar dynamic. Luckily, she doesn’t have him undergo an earthshaking (implausible) change. Nor has she written a female fantasy in which woman civilizes male savage and lives with him happily ever after.

Rather, Homestead shows how Marie summons up the courage to ask for what she wants and to push back when Lawrence refuses. I like those scenes, but the groundwork fails to convince me. Where did Marie get the emotional strength, growing up without love, abandoned by her mother and abused by her wicked grandmother? Maybe that’s the part that sounds like a fairytale setup, though focusing on Marie’s efforts and not their result is at least a fresh take.

But Lawrence is the weaker characterization, by far. I don’t see how he can be so self-absorbed, treat his wife like a tool, and act amazed when she resents it, unless he’s psychologically damaged. But he’s not; he’s simply stubborn and criminally obtuse. Moustakis harps on the Korean War trauma, but there’s no evidence he was warm and fuzzy before then.

Even more puzzling, when his father, Joseph, shows up to help build a cabin, you have to wonder whether the son is really somebody else’s child. Joseph’s a kindly, sensitive, generous person—my favorite character—and he tries gently to take his son in hand. Guess how far that goes.

Moustakis writes beautifully, even better without the occasional breathless, Proustian sentences that call attention to themselves and can be hard to follow. But she does render the toil and ingenuity that go into making a homestead with remarkable vividness and precision. I admire those sections and have never read anything like them.

Then there’s Alaska, whose natural beauty can sweep you away:

She should turn back, but above the ridge is a distant glow, as if from another, fuller moon. A soft tick, tick, tick crackles in her ears, the break of a radio. . . .As she crests the top, the air thickens, a charge runs up her spine and hums at the back of her skull, and the nightgown clings, molds to her body. A green blaze is twisting and roping in the sky, a witching spell threading through the stars and coming for her. Waves of light above and below and then all around, pulsing and pressing in on her throat.

Reading this description whetted my latent wish to see the aurora borealis before I die. But whether such passages alone can pull you through Homestead, I leave to you.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Bad Mother: This Lovely City


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Review: This Lovely City, by Louise Hare
Anansi, 2020. 384 pp. $18

Lawrence (Lawrie) Mathews, a young Jamaican whose brother died fighting with the RAF in World War II, has emigrated to London, believing the blandishments from the British government that he can make his fortune in the mother country. But he hasn’t reckoned on the racism, expressed in the most vicious, direct terms; or that most desirable material goods are still rationed in 1948; or that housing is in short supply, thanks largely to German bombs.

Nevertheless, by 1950, when the story begins, things are looking up. He plays clarinet with a jazz band, which he loves, and which brings in a little cash. As a day job, he delivers mail for the Post Office. And he’s found lodging with a kind, motherly woman who treats him with fond respect. Not just that: Lawrie digs the girl next door, who likes him back. What could go wrong?

Plenty. One day, while making a drop of black-market merchandise to help a friend (and make ends meet), he happens on a dead infant by a pond. Since the child is “coloured,” as the kindest word in common use puts it, an accusation against Lawrie fits all too neatly, especially since he can’t explain his presence at the pond without revealing he’s an accessory to illegal activity. But even a more legitimate excuse probably wouldn’t have helped Lawrie, for Detective Sergeant Rathbone hates Black people, immigrants, and most anyone else on two legs.

Worse, the case creates a sensation in the press, arousing white Londoners itching to blame outsiders for the hardships that haven’t eased much since V-E Day. Lawrie and his Jamaican friends must now watch themselves carefully on the street, while patronizing stores and—most especially—when the jazz band plays dance music for a hard-drinking crowd.

Nelson’s column, London, seen through the Great Smog, December 1952. The climatic disaster lasted five days and caused many thousands of deaths. (Courtesy N T Stobbs via Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite aspect of This Lovely City is the plot, which twists in unexpected ways, particularly in the final third. Both Lawrie and his girlfriend, Evie Coleridge, have secrets from the other. Evie also has a hard-hearted mother, an apt parallel to England. Mrs. Coleridge has suffered its whips and scorns herself, though that’s why—at least in part—she’s as tough as she is.

I also like how Hare re-creates postwar London, pinched and yearning to let loose, but also violently racist, in which what we would call micro-aggressions quickly flame into just plain aggression. The prose, though simple, occasionally rises to illumine emotional moments particular to that environment, as with this passage about Lawrie playing jazz before an audience:

The nerves would pass soon enough, but the moments before they started playing, before the music took over, always made him feel like one of the tigers at London Zoo. He’d gone there with Evie the previous autumn. She had leaned against the railing and stared in awe at the big cats, lounging lazily in their compound, but all he could think of was how sad they looked, those magnificent beasts now tamed and cowed by their conquerors. If anyone could understand the tigers it was him, trapped in a foreign land and reduced to parading himself before a paying audience. But then he’d raise his clarinet, the reed rough against his lips, and feel like a king.

I wish the characterizations worked with any consistency. Lawrie and Evie seem too good by half, and the terrible secrets they possess never credibly threaten their happiness. At times, quick resolutions—much like Lawrie merely lifting the clarinet to his lips, in the above passage—make me wonder whether Hare’s trying too hard to rescue her characters.

She also portrays Lawrie as a sexual innocent in ways I find hard to believe, particularly when a young woman invites him to take a bath at her house (in the days before he moves next door to Evie), and he has no idea she has plans other than cleanliness. At times too he seems generally clueless about his surroundings, as with his surprise that so much of London was bombed. Not much of a secret, that. What did he think his brother was doing in the RAF?

The two principals often have trouble locating their spines, to the extent that I lost patience with them and wondered what they saw in each other. Wouldn’t each lover seek out someone more forceful than themselves? They’re trying to be pleasant, sure, perhaps hiding behind that to avoid confrontations. Or maybe they confuse asking for what they want with meanness; it’s hard to tell. But whatever the explanation, I wanted more push from each of them, the lack of which might just be convenient to the plot.

As for the villains, the cops are faceless and horrid, without a single redeeming feature, including intelligence, so it’s a surprise to discover they actually know a thing or two. The most complex character in the book—perhaps the only one with sharp edges and kind impulses, both—is Mrs. Coleridge. She’s a piece of work, yet I understand her.

For all that, though, This Lovely City provides a glimpse of London as I’ve never read of it. Despite its flaws, the novel depicts the struggle to get by and dreams of a fuller life in real, day-to-day terms. That’s worth something.

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

Advance review copies came in!


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Even the third time around, holding a book of mine fresh from the publisher gives me a thrill. And Lonely Are the Brave is my debut novel, fulfilling a dream I’ve had since I was a teenager.

An advance rave review came in too!

“[An] affecting historical novel . . . .The prose is tight and direct, imparting dread around people’s persistent secrets. . . . Lumberton is a compelling setting for the book’s drama, which reflects the powerful, lasting impacts of overseas combat—both on those involved and those left behind.”

Searchers: The Sun Walks Down


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Review: The Sun Walks Down, by Fiona McFarlane
FSG, 2023. 352 pp. $28

September 1883 witnesses spectacular sunsets in South Australia—and in Fairly, a small town in the outback, every parent’s nightmare has just occurred. Denny Wallace, age six, has gone missing, having walked only a short distance from home and apparently become disoriented during a dust storm. The town, and several strangers, sets out to look for him.

This simple premise prompts a tale more about Fairly and the searchers than it does about Denny, who has relatively little to say. A quiet, reserved child, something of an odd duck, he gets drowned out in this novel amid many loud voices. I think that’s the author’s intention—the searchers and onlookers, most of them, act out of selfish motives, which take center stage. Several characters, when they want something, simply take it, a recurring motif.

But even the unappealing characters are unintentionally funny, even hilarious. That makes an unusual juxtaposition with a child at risk, to say the least; the opening chapters of the book led me to wonder whether I was reading a comedy. Throughout, humor is seldom far away—welcome, but occasionally jarring.

Alexander Schramm’s painting A Scene in South Australia (ca. 1850) shows an idealized version of relations between colonials and indigenous people (courtesy Art Gallery of South Australia via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The characters’ thoughts and actions are meant to recount Australia’s story at that time. The lack of rain makes wheat growing an iffy proposition, and sheep and cattle ranching fare little better. The white community looks upon the indigenous peoples whose land they’ve taken as barely human, certainly not their equals, despite lifetime loyalties to individuals. Their suspicions of outsiders, class consciousness (so much for the democratic frontier), and religious and sexual attitudes come to the fore in the hue and cry after Denny.

McFarlane pays minute attention to social interactions. Take The Sun Walks Down as a panoply of characters revealing themselves, often in subtle ways, and you’ll appreciate its essence. In the author’s hands, even the most mundane actions reveal character, as with this passage about Sergeant Foster, a police officer summoned from a larger town to take charge, and Jimmy, an Aborigine tracker he’s employed:

Finally, the sky turned red and the sun went down and here they are, having made tense camp around a fire built large enough to attract attention, in the hope that the boy might see it and seek them out. Jimmy didn’t like the idea of attracting attention, which is, Foster thinks as he smokes by the fire, typical of natives; their every word and act is directed by some dreadful superstition. The local men produced a supply of rum and offered it around, and Foster refused for both himself and Jimmy. The men objected to this refusal on Jimmy’s behalf, grew boisterous, then maudlin, and are now asleep and snoring—one with a courteous squeal, and the other like a church organ. Foster perches, disgruntled, in the front pew.

The novel contains a raft of people, and McFarlane portrays nearly all of them brilliantly. I particularly like Denny’s fifteen-year-old sister, angry at everyone and everything but more capable than many of the adults around her. Foster, the pigheaded sergeant, takes an outsize role in the narrative and an even larger one in his head.

Minna, newlywed at eighteen, has a good heart but resents Denny for getting lost, because that means her constable husband is called away, and she can’t sleep with him. Two artists float through the story, one English, one Swedish; the locals don’t know quite what to make of them.

However, the one character I don’t get is Denny. He has the delusion that nature is a god that speaks to him, occasionally embodied in various adult rescuers, whose presence he flees. Really? Is he psychotic? Doesn’t seem so otherwise, and though his father scares him—an ill-tempered soul, to be sure—his mother’s tender, and four sisters dote on him. I don’t see great trauma; resilience, more like.

I wonder whether Denny has to avoid his rescuers to let the story go in particular directions, which, if true, makes his visions too convenient. In any case, the novel lacks a coherent plot building to a climax, though many scenes provide tension in themselves.

Then again, The Sun Walks Down offers significant commentary about colonial Australia involving racism, the struggle to earn a living, misogyny, social rivalries, and the influence of religion. McFarlane depicts the landscape beautifully, not least the sunsets—which, toward the end, you learn have come about because of the Krakatoa volcanic eruption.

Just as Denny’s a bit odd, perhaps not entirely believable, so too the narrative in which his disappearance forms the center. If you will, read the novel for its characterizations, descriptions of nature, and as a snapshot of Australia at the time, and you’ll be satisfied.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.

Love Letter to Pulp Fiction: Paperback Jack


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Review: Paperback Jack, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 2022. 224 pp. $27

Jacob Heppleman returns to New York from World War II in 1946, thinking the world has changed beyond recognition and wondering whether he has a place in it. A hack writer for pulp magazines, he quickly discovers that these markets have dried up.

But his agent has taken the liberty, while Jack was in the army, of selling one of his novels to Blue Devil Books, for publication in paperback. Cover approved and everything, with the promise of an advance against royalty Jacob sorely needs—though his name now appears as Jack Holly.

September 1929 issue of Black Mask, featuring the first serial episode of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, quintessential hard-boiled fiction. Illustration of detective Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy (courtesy Popular Publications Inc. via Wikimedia Commons; copyright lapsed, therefore in public domain)

Since Jacob never signed a publishing contract—never even heard a whisper of the deal—this is patently fraudulent (and perhaps incredible). And since he rejects the made-up moniker and the anti-Semitism that makes it commercially advisable—what did he fight for, after all?—he has no intention of permitting his book to appear with Blue Devil. Paperbacks? Ugh. Hardcover’s where it’s at, and Jacob intends to become a “real” writer, learn his profession the proper way.

However, when the only place that will pay him for his words turns out to be a second-rate tabloid that hires him as a rewrite man—no byline, low salary—he wonders how he’ll make a living. And when he takes a writing class under the GI Bill, hoping to nurture his art, the teacher’s a nasty, arrogant 4F who has it in for veterans (natch), which thwarts Jacob’s plans for study.

The class does help him in one way, though. He meets Ellen Curry, a beautiful redhead who’s hoping to improve her writing so that she can find a secretarial job.

Eventually, Jacob agrees to become Jack Holly to the public, and Robin Elk, Blue Devil’s British publisher, promises that he can’t go wrong. Jacob, though he respects Elk’s war record—he survived a German POW camp—thinks the man has a slimy side and doesn’t trust him.

Jacob also insists that if he’s to write gritty crime stories, he needs to meet a gangster or three. Elk sends him to his star illustrator and convicted felon, Phil Scarpetti, whom Jacob befriends (no easy task), and from whom he learns a great deal, thanks, in part, to a few crucial introductions.

The jacket flap calls Paperback Jack a thriller. That’s news to me; only intermittently does the narrative’s “no—and furthermore” push our hero to the brink. Yes, there’s a gangster who wants a cut from Jacob’s royalties in return for his advice, but he never feels that threatening.

More significantly, a congressional hue and cry in 1952 against the immorality peddled to American youth by paperback writers and publishers ropes in Phil and Jacob and could wreck their careers. I love those scenes, outrageous assaults on First Amendment rights and human decency that read like House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. But I still don’t think “thriller” because of them.

Nevertheless, Paperback Jack is a wonderful book, a delightfully evocative rendering of hard-boiled fiction and its practitioners in the 1950s. And as you would expect—demand—from such a story, Estleman has the language, culture, and attitudes down cold. From the opening lines, in which Jacob admires a hip, slick, and cool typewriter in a pawnshop window, you know you’re in the hands of a master:

The typewriter—for that’s all it was, despite the trimmings—compared to his old gray Royal standard like a spaceship parked next to a hay wagon. In a pawnshop window it was absurdly out of place, surrounded by egg-beaters and pocket watches, bouquets of fountain pens, a Chock full o’ Nuts coffee can filled with wire-rimmed spectacles tangled inextricably like paper clips, a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia (outdated emphatically by events in Munich and Yalta). It looked proud and disdainful, a prince in exile.
And it spoke to him.

Estleman, last seen in these pages with Billy Gashade, writes propulsive, unexpected prose that actually means something and doesn’t sell out to cuteness. Consider this thought of Jacob’s, as he struggles to find his feet: “The army spent six weeks training a man to act on reflex, without thinking, and no time at all retraining him to use his brain when the crisis was over.” A concise description of a veteran having trouble fitting into civilian life.

Despite all that, the characterizations can be hit-and-miss. Jacob’s memorable, if opaque in spots; for instance, I don’t quite believe his Jewishness, and I wonder if this tough-guy writer has been rendered as too emotionally remote. Ellen seems at times a male fantasy. I wish the narrative showed more of her life separate from Jacob’s, though she does have strong opinions, a mind of her own. But the supporting cast is first-rate, starting with Phil, who steals most scenes in which he appears, and Elk, the smarmy publisher, whom Jacob never entirely warms to.

Paperback Jack is a love letter to a style of fiction and the authors who produced it. I was looking forward to reading it and am glad to say it’s as advertised. Enjoy.

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

Mississippi Mayhem: Any Where You Run


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Review: Any Where You Run, by Wanda M. Morris
Morrow, 2022. 382 pp. $29

Neshoba County, Mississippi, is in upheaval in summer 1964. Three civil-rights activists have been murdered, and pressure on the federal government gets the FBI involved, because local law enforcement takes no interest. But the infamous case concerning James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman is merely background story here, a gauge by which to measure Neshoba County at that time.

Violet and Marigold Richards don’t need to read the newspapers to know what it means to be Black. Each sister runs afoul of a man, the law, or both. A white man sexually assaults Violet, who shoots him dead. That sends her fleeing from Jackson to Chillicothe, Georgia, a small town where she has kin, worrying that any second, the local police will trace her to the shooting. (Why they haven’t already is never explained.)

Meanwhile, Marigold, the supposedly smarter sister, the one good in school—there’s much sibling rival over family perceptions—makes the mistake of her life. Working for the Mississippi Summer Project, trying to help Blacks register to vote, she has an affair with a handsome lawyer from Harlem. When Marigold tells him she’s pregnant, he splits. And when Violet splits too, without having told her where she’s gone, Marigold wonders what to do next.

FBI missing-persons poster showing Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, June 1964 (courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Any Where You Run offers a compelling story that will keep you turning the pages. It’s not just that each Richards sister has reasons to run; they have persistent pursuers with varied motives for catching up to them. Bad choices multiply, and circumstances conspire against them, usually because bigotry has narrowed the number of possible solutions down to zero. “No—and furthermore” lives here, in other words, and Morris has no qualms about punishing her characters.

I also like the sense of time and place. The author excels at portraying everyday situations in which a white person can expect help, respect, or just simple acknowledgment, whereas a Black person knows she can only hope to escape punishment for an imaginary offense. A Black woman may not try on a wedding dress; it’s take it or leave it, and be quick. A Black person mustn’t look a white person in the eye. And so on. As Violet recalls of her childhood:

We weren’t blind. We knew that the books we used in school didn’t look like the ones the white kids used. We knew we couldn’t use the local libraries or swimming pools like the white kids. How do you tell a child that life will be better for them, when everything in the world told them something different? I had to force my mind to stop thinking on those things because they always took me to a bad place.

However, those bad places, and how the characters react to them (or don’t) hold this novel back, I think. The sisters’ plight and sufferings make you want to find out what happens to them, but the next “no—and furthermore” seldom evokes deep reflection or emotional reckoning. Instead, Violet and Marigold react in set, predictable, logical ways, bouncing between two unpleasant alternatives, too often expressed in rhetorical questions (“How could I . . . .?), which feels like lip service rather than grappling.

For instance, I kept wanting Violet to wrestle with the sexual assault and the murder she commits in revenge. But the small extent to which she dwells on them seems to suggest a plot point—why she’s on the run—not traumatic events.

Rather, it’s on to the next crisis, until the end, when violence erupts everywhere, much of it in melodrama, yet the survivors appear to dig themselves out from under—no, not by snapping their fingers, but still without the turmoil you might expect.

Too many characters here are all good or all bad, especially the men, who are either saints or devils. With one male character, Morris presents a slightly more nuanced picture, trying to show how the racist culture and power structure put poor whites at a disadvantage. But even he tips over the edge, partly because the triple murder of the activists influences the narrative.

Consequently, Any Where You Run stands or falls on the plot and setting alone. The writing, simple and direct, as with the passage quoted above, seldom gets in the way but never takes flight, either. Often reading like nonfiction with occasional, pithy folk sayings, the prose plays toward the action, and when it must take center stage, as with the emotional transitions, I wanted words I could hold onto.

To be fair, the tension never flags, and the story is often gut-wrenching. But the emotional impact could have gone much deeper. This might be one novel in which less—as in fewer twists, especially violent ones—might have counted for more.

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