The Tepid Tropics: Conquistadora


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Review: Conquistadora, by Esmeralda Santiago
Knopf, 2011. 414 pp. $28

Be careful what you wish for. That might be the moral of this novel, but it would be hard to blame its nineteenth-century protagonist, Ana Larragoity Cubillas, for wanting what no other young woman of her time, place, and social class could normally dream of. The daughter of a Seville aristocrat whose illustrious sixteenth-century ancestor sailed with Ponce de Leon, Ana asphyxiates in an emotionally and intellectually stifling home where name and pride are the only things that matter. Her parents, angry that she wasn’t born male, see no reason to treat her with warmth or kindness, since she disappointed them and will never amount to anything they approve of. Ana’s sole refuges are the diary her conquistador forebear left behind and the occasional visits to her grandparents’ farm, where she comes alive in the garden, the barn, and the fields. Naturally, these are no pursuits for a girl of noble lineage. But she is determined not to encase herself in crinoline, marry a rich dolt older than herself, and die without seeing the world.

Rescue comes in Ana’s teenage years from a schoolmate, Elena. Not only does Elena provide the friendship Ana has never known, the girls become intimate in ways the nuns at the convent school would not even have the vocabulary to describe. The girls’ encounters are easily the most passionate scenes in the book, and Elena is the instigator, a nifty surprise given that she’s much more conventional than Ana. But that’s not all. Elena has two handsome cousins, twins of fine manners whose merchant father has commercial interests in Puerto Rico. It’s assumed that Inocente will marry Elena; Ramón proposes to Ana. But Ana has a plan: Why don’t they all move to Puerto Rico and run the sugar plantation that belongs to her prospective father-in-law? With the will and persuasiveness typical of her, Ana sells everyone on the idea and convinces her stuffy parents to permit her marriage to a mere merchant’s son.

The difficulty of reconciling a romantic education to the real world is a common theme in literature; Cervantes, Flaubert, and Sinclair Lewis come to mind as practitioners. So it’s a given that Ana’s plan doesn’t work out the way she intended, but she’s nothing if not adaptable. And though the plantation is in far worse shape than she imagined, she’s excited to be there:

She’d been moving toward this destination not knowing exactly where it was, what it looked like, but now Hacienda los Gemelos was spread below her, calling to her. She wanted to be on the ground, to feel its rich earth, to smell it, taste it even. Long before she reached it, she knew she’d love this land, would love it as long as she lived. She was eighteen years old, had arrived at the end of a journey that was also a beginning, one that she’d already decided was final. I’m here, she said to herself. I’m here, she told the breeze. . .

Corvera’s 1893 drawing of Juan Ponce de Leon, first governor of Puerto Rico (courtesy British Library, via Wikimedia Commons)

The vivid descriptions are one thing I like about Conquistadora. Another is the care Santiago takes with her minor characters. She creates touching portraits of the slaves who work Hacienda los Gemelos, many of whom carry traumatic memories of their abduction and transport across the ocean. (The ones who don’t remember were born on the island, often to mothers impregnated by the white overseer.) Since these people are virtually invisible to their owners–except when they try to escape–Santiago is plainly trying to rectify the imbalance, and I applaud that.

That said, however, I find Conquistadora a tepid novel. It reads more like a biography of Ana (or, more properly, Hacienda los Gemelos) than fiction, consisting of events that follow logically, even predictably, and reach no height of feeling, except, as I said, the schoolgirl love affair. There’s no character arc, because you find out all you will ever know about the characters early on, and Santiago tells their emotions more than she shows them, so it feels rote. There’s no story arc either, just episodes. If you drew a diagram of the tension, you’d have a sine curve, not a rising line.

I also dislike the tendentious aspect of the narrative. Ana’s descended from a conquistador, and the title is Conquistadora, after all. You see how she mistreats her slaves, and how they suffer. So how many times do you need to be told directly that she’s much like her ancestor, and that her wealth is built on the dead bodies of enslaved laborers? Quite a few, apparently.

Conquistadora is more interesting for its subject matter than as fiction.

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

Murder in Troubled Times: Beyond Absolution


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Review: Beyond Absolution, by Cora Harrison
Severn, 2017. 249 pp. $29

Cork, 1923. Father Dominic, a much-loved Capuchin friar, is found dead in the confessional at Holy Trinity Church. Someone has killed him with a weapon thin enough to pass through the grille separating penitent from confessor, and sharp and long enough to penetrate his brain through his listening ear. Reverend Mother Aquinas, who runs a convent school and knows everyone in Cork, grew up friends with Father Dominic and his brother, Lawrence, also in holy orders. Though respectful of Inspector Patrick Cashman, the detective assigned to the case, and aware that solving the murder is his job, the Reverend Mother brings her keen faculties and web of contacts to bear, hoping to aid the overworked inspector.

The first question is whether the late priest had heard too much–and, given how he died, the metaphor is inescapable. But the secrets of the confessional are never divulged, so there was no chance that Father Dominic betrayed a confidence and paid for it. Nevertheless, shortly before his death, he visited an up-and-coming antique shop and saw something there that agitated him. Since he was no collector–couldn’t be, considering his vow of poverty–why he went there raises more questions than it answers. What’s more, the owner of the antique shop, Peter Doyle, has a little explaining to do. Witnesses say they saw him at Holy Trinity at the time of the murder; but he says he wasn’t, and since he’s Protestant, he had no reason to go there.

However, there’s something about him that doesn’t quite square. A theatrical group that he runs, which is preparing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, contains a raft of people who seem to have plenty of money to spend, no matter what their occupation. What connection that has to the murder is anyone’s guess, but suffice to say that every cast member of the Mikado becomes a suspect. But what motive would they have to kill a much-loved priest?

Then again, no one is entirely beloved, and Father Dominic ventured into prisons to give the sacraments to incarcerated IRA soldiers. The agreement made the previous year to grant Ireland independence, minus the six northern counties, has pleased practically nobody, and the violence continues. Accordingly, the priest’s death becomes a political issue, as do the religious affiliations and family lineages of almost every character in the novel.

Auxiliaries and “Black and Tans” fought the IRA and earned the undying enmity of Irish nationalists (courtesy National Library of Ireland via Wikimedia Commons)

I like this aspect of Beyond Absolution. Harrison re-creates the mutual suspicion and prejudice that crops up in or lies beneath the surface of every human transaction. She betrays the loyalties to client, faith, class, or brand of nationalism and how they seep through life and color how people make decisions. You see divisions within the police, the educational system, and the church. Since the dominant ethic seems to be based on tradition, fear, and suspicion, you get the feeling that the sensitive, forward-thinking characters–the Reverend Mother, Inspector Cashman, and a few others–are trying to hold back the ocean. In another nice touch, the Reverend Mother once taught Cashman, so she has a personal stake in wanting him to succeed; likewise, she can recall how several other characters behaved as students of hers.

Gossip is the grease that makes this world go round, and even the telephone calls may not be private, as the Reverend Mother well knows:

There were, she supposed, other countries where the exchange operators took a number in silence and put you through, preserving an air of total anonymity about the process, but here in the city of Cork, that would have been considered discourteous. In Cork, it was assumed that everyone knew everyone else’s business. And the telephone exchange women did their best to add to that common pool of knowledge. Sensible people, keeping this in mind, spent the first minutes exchanging remarks about the weather and the state of the streets before moving on to matters that were more private.

As for the mystery, Harrison tells her story well and keeps you guessing–at least about most things. It’s a little too easy to tell the good guys and bad guys apart–as with Peter Doyle, the characterizations can be one-sided–and the antique-store crowd are a bad lot, which narrows the field quite a bit. You may not guess the killer’s identity, but the motive quickly becomes obvious. Sometimes, Harrison clumsily introduces facts she wants you to know or character background. At those moments, I felt I was being Told Something Important rather than being allowed to discover it naturally.

Still, I appreciate Harrison’s skill at re-creating an era, and I applaud her decision not to try to clean it up. The Troubles were a very violent time, and she gives a glimpse of why.

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

When Memory Plays Tricks: Devastation Road


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Review: Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt
Little, Brown, 2015. 379 pp. $20

In spring 1945, an injured man wakes in a field. He’s got only the vaguest idea of who he is–he’s English, and his name is Owen–but he’s wearing clothes that don’t fit, he can’t remember how he got hurt, why he’s where he is, how he got there, or where there is, except that it must be Europe. To judge from what he sees, it must be Central Europe, but he can’t tell what country.

Marshal Konev leads the Red Army into Prague, May 1945 (courtesy Karel Hájek, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Czech boy, Janek, who speaks barely a word of English, adopts him and claims to have rescued him, but Owen’s not sure of that, and, to some extent, resents how Janek sticks to him like glue. But the boy is useful, scrounging food and keeping a keen eye out for dangers that Owen might otherwise blunder into. Through Janek, Owen also learns that there’s a war on, and he slowly realizes that he’s played a part in it, and what that part is. Eventually, they meet a Polish woman, Irena, who attaches herself to them, though each has a different aim. Owen wants to go home. Janek insists he must find his brother, Petr, a Resistance hero. Irena, whose head has been shaved, says that she just wants to be safe–it’s hard for a Jew, she says–but you get the idea that she wants someone to take care of her, and Owen, as an Englishman, is the obvious choice.

I like the way Hewitt pieces together his narrative, showing how Owen gradually realizes who he is, memories triggered by a button, a phrase on a scrap of paper, a facial expression, or how light looks. As images return to him of his former employment as a draftsman for an aircraft manufacturer; his older brother, Max; their parents; and Max’s fiancée, the reader senses that Owen’s disorientation isn’t just post-traumatic stress. He’s also suppressing certain memories out of guilt.

To weld these disparate fragments into a coherent narrative takes great skill, and nearly all Hewitt’s transitions between past and present meld seamlessly. His descriptions, based on apparently thorough research, effortlessly depict the era and the settings. Further, he conveys Owen’s fluid, ever-varying states of mind with authority:

It was not that he was lost that concerned him most. Nor was it that he had found himself in a war that he remembered so little about, which now seemed to be consuming everything and everyone within it. Nor was it that he had ended up in an obscure country that in the past had been nothing more than a strange name in the news broadcasts, or, even, that somehow he seemed to have wiped several years from his mind. No, what concerned him most was that things he now knew for sure–and knew that he knew–could suddenly be lost again, and then found, and lost once more, as if they had never been there in the first place.

Despite these attributes, rendered in lucidly beautiful prose, Devastation Road presents quite a few obstacles. Chief among them is how irritating all three main characters are. Owen seems too earnest, even clueless, to be a survivor, and it’s hard to believe he was involved in the war, because he lacks the necessary guile or instinct that warriors must possess if they’re to overcome the inevitable setbacks they face. Janek is too much the entitled teenager for my taste, as if he too hasn’t reckoned with or been leveled by the war, even though he grew up in it. He evokes flickers of sympathy, yet the narrative grabs most when he’s not involved. Irena’s truly appalling, selfish as the day is long, and it’s pretty obvious she’s lying about something. What has happened to her is both awful and painful, sure, and even holds the potential for tragedy, but that side feels too mechanical and distant, so that her grasping nature overshadows the rest.

Devastation Road works best, I think, as a study of one man’s psychology, the story of his unfolding, tricky memory. If you can hold onto that, the novel will be worth your time.

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

Breaking the Rules: World, Chase Me down


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Review: World, Chase Me Down, by Andrew Hilleman
Penguin, 2017. 332 pp. $16

Like Pat Crowe, the hero of this brash, rambunctious novel about power and reputation set mostly in Omaha around the turn of the last century, the author breaks a lot of rules and gets away with it. You have to admire that, and World, Chase Me Down is a lot of fun, proof that there’s nothing like a character who does and says what readers can only fantasize about. But it’s not just the audacity to tell off corrupt authorities or rob rich people, as Pat does, which makes him attractive. Bravado and violence wear thin, eventually, no matter what purpose they serve. Rather, despite however many rules of storytelling Hilleman ignores, he burnishes one to a high luster–his protagonist’s feelings for the poor and downtrodden, which earn the reader’s respect and sympathy.

Omaha, Nebraska, as it appeared in 1914 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As the novel opens, Pat reflects on his life in 1939. As most of you must know by now, retrospect is just about my least favorite narrative technique. I’ve always suspected that prologues are the refuge of authors who lack confidence in their readers and themselves, fearing that unless they offer a teaser of future action or tension, no one will sit still for their story. But only a bond with characters can keep me reading; curiosity about the story isn’t enough.

So I’ll say this for Hilleman: His prologue throws down a gauntlet. He’s not interested in teasing anybody; he tells you most of what happens in World, Chase Me Down before it’s three pages old and defies you to put the book aside. But it’s not just his daring, like Pat’s, that draws you in and keeps you turning the pages. It’s that by the second sentence, both Pat and his creator have you in their grasp through a shocking admission. For the past twenty years, Pat says, “I’ve been puzzling my way back to humanity,” but will be remembered, if at all, for perhaps the “foulest of all crimes”–kidnapping a child. That touch of humility, his acknowledgment that he has much to atone for, elevates him above and earns greater sympathy than a garden-variety criminal, trickster, or rebel whose freedom to tweak (or punch) any nose he desires.

That said, it’s no mean feat to tell a story that offers few surprises in plot and still make it work. How does Hilleman pull it off?

First, he’s got a pig-headed protagonist. Pat hears a lot of good advice and ignores nearly all of it, to his terrible cost. He never learns, either, to guard himself against his impulses, but that’s part of his charm as well as his undoing. So you know that trouble will come, but you don’t know how. The “no; and furthermore” gambit is alive and well in these pages. But none of that would work if you didn’t see Pat struggle with himself as much as his circumstances, and Hilleman takes care to show this.

Also, even if Hilleman has revealed early on what happens, you don’t know how Pat will adjust to it until you get there, and the author takes care to show that too. Consider the moment after Pat visits Ed Cudahy, Omaha meat-packing baron and father of the boy Pat intends to kidnap:

It would take an equal or perhaps even greater measure of villainy to expose what I hated most about the villainous world. The children in rags who came pawing at the gigantic carriages parked along the decorated boulevards, and the men inside who tossed out a few coins on the street only to shoo the children away. The stockyarders who worked for half a dollar a day only to have to pay twice that for the same meat they labored over to fill their families’ tables.

I wish I saw Billy Cavanagh, Pat’s friend and partner in crime, as clearly. Billy’s a simple soul–give him a jug of whiskey, and he’s content–and the two men trade hilarious insults, bickering like a married couple. But I don’t understand why the glue between them should be as strong as it is, and Billy doesn’t grab me anywhere close to the way Pat does. Moreover, Pat’s magnanimity doesn’t extend to police who try to apprehend him and who, after all, are only doing their jobs; he wounds or kills them with nary a dash of empathy.

Still, World, Chase Me Down is a wonderful book–and for those who care about such things, Pat Crowe was a real person.

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

The Many Forms of Betrayal: The Widow Tree


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Review: The Widow Tree, by Nicole Lundrigan
Douglas and McIntyre, 2013. 310 pp. $18

In this marvelous, heartfelt novel set in the Yugoslavia of 1953, oppression comes in many forms. It’s not just that Tito’s long arm reaches from the capital all the way down to the village of Bregalnica. The villagers have seen the great leader only once, when his limousine drove through; on that occasion, he pulled on white gloves before shaking a few hands, hiding his face behind sunglasses.

Josip Broz, known as Tito, in 1961 (courtesy Digital Library of Slovenia, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in Slovenia and the United States).

That moment says much about the world of The Widow Tree, but the local is more immediate and pervasive. The Second World War may be over, but residual anger, hatred, and the urge for vengeance simmer close to the surface, and whoever challenges tribal loyalties does so at their peril. No one has forgotten anything, least of all old scores.

So it is when János, Dorján, and Nevena, teenagers whose school has been assigned a government field to harvest, dig up a shard of pottery containing ancient Roman coins, their find tests their allegiances. Nevena, whose father is the Komandant in Bregalnica, thinks they should hand over the treasure. János violently disagrees, insisting that they should keep it and tell no one. Dorján sees both sides. And in the end, because János is the most passionate and daring of the three, they decide to keep the coins; the boys bury them in the woods. Naturally, nothing good comes of this.

Lundrigan’s saying that it’s the kids who suffer most, growing up carrying inherited burdens, and the way she’s drawn her youthful triumvirate underlines the point. János and Dorján, friends practically from birth, both live with their grandmothers (their parents having been casualties of war or illness) and have long dreamed of becoming engineers and rebuilding their country. But János, who has a cruel streak, has always been a daredevil and a prankster; by the time he’s sixteen, he’s sensed that, contrary to what everyone says, betrayals destroyed his family.

Accordingly, he’s primed to rebel, and his anger is such that he won’t be silent. Dorján, of kinder nature but less confident socially, tries to tell his friend that expressing discontent will bring punishment, though he’s also worried that János is pulling away from him and has renounced their shared dream. The growing attraction between János and Nevena threatens to divide the friends even further, but, ever self-effacing, Dorján never opens his mouth to object. He sympathizes with his free-thinking friend, even shares his ideas, but is too scared to do anything about it. János is disgusted with him, but Dorján knows his limits; he’s the type whom authority figures pick on, sensing weakness.

As for Nevena, she’s in a difficult position. She admires and respects both boys, but she’s also the Komandant’s daughter, and she wants to be a good girl. Being female, she has fewer options than her friends–as in only one, marrying well–but Lundrigan complicates the picture. She makes the Komandant a doting father who intervenes to protect Nevena from her mother’s authoritarian small-mindedness. Consequently, Nevena may be forgiven for imagining that he’d be equally kind and sympathetic to everyone else.

But in Bregalnica, tender qualities are very carefully guarded. János’s grandmother, Gitta, understands how this appears every day:

To cut the silence, she flicked on the radio, heard the stream of good news. Always good news. Stories that would make a person feel better, if only they allowed them to penetrate their hearts. Gitta could not abide it, twisting the dial with a harsh snap of her wrist. That is not real. That is not real. But to whom could she complain? No one was left untouched, and no one even talked about the war anymore. They ignored the homes that were filled with new families. Forgot about the faces that were missing, or failed to notice the pale outline where shop signs had been removed and hastily replaced.

My sole criticism of The Widow Tree has to do with Dragan Dobrica, Nevena’s father. His desire to appear firm yet merciful, capable of kindness, conceals a vengeful spirit. I like that portrayal, but I’m not entirely persuaded by Lundrigan’s representation of Dragan to himself; I think he should have more difficulty, or spend more time at, negotiating between his benign and malignant selves.

Otherwise, The Widow Tree is a terrific novel, testament to the truth that for war’s survivors, the greatest casualty is trust.

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

Across Generations: The World of Tomorrow


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Review: The World of Tomorrow, by Brendan Matthews
Little, Brown, 2017. 549 pp. $28

When we first meet Francis Dempsey, he’s passing himself off as Sir Angus MacFarquhar and doing his best to charm society girl Anisette Bingham and her mother on the Britannic, bound for New York. It’s disconcerting for Francis to pretend to be a Scottish peer when he’s Irish, he’s never been to Scotland, and he doesn’t even know which spoon to use.

But he’s having the time of his life, remarkable since he was in an Irish prison only days before. Using his father’s funeral as a cover, the IRA sprang him and his brother Michael, a seminarian, then unwittingly provided them with a strongbox of cash when a safe house blew up. However, Michael lost both eardrums and his senses in the blast, so in Francis’s scheme, Michael becomes Sir Malcolm, his invalid brother commended to his care. But Michael, in his post-traumatic state, has a companion, the recently deceased William Butler Yeats, who seems to vanish and reappear and lecture Michael about what to do next.

Are you getting all this? Throw in that the Dempseys have another brother in New York, Martin, a jazz musician hoping to make a splash, and that the king and queen of England are visiting the World’s Fair, and — oh, by the way, it’s June 1939.

Frank Buck’s Jungleland, souvenir of the World’s Fair (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Then there are bad guys, and this is where both Francis and The World of Tomorrow get into real trouble. John Gavigan, once a big-time New York hood, has been funneling guns and cash to the IRA for years. Gavigan drags in a former IRA assassin, Tom Cronin, who knew the Dempseys in Ireland, to deal with Francis’s theft of IRA funds.

At its best, The World of Tomorrow is a hilarious romp about fulfilling dreams, the dicey nature of love, and what people have to learn to accept if they wish to be happy. It’s also a love song to the importance of family, and the Dempseys’ tortured, tangled roots make a fine narrative. I also like how Matthews portrays the jazz musician Martin and his long-suffering but devoted wife, Rosemary, the rock of the crazy family she married into.

But it’s hard balancing the deadly serious with the madcap, and though Matthews is a terrific storyteller, pushing his characters to the limit at every turn, the killers don’t fit. The violence that frees Francis and Michael and sets up their escapade feels faceless and comically absurd, like the Binghams’ fascination with the allegedly titled suitor for Anisette. (Who would name their daughter after a liqueur?) But the violence that Tom Cronin’s ordered to execute is neither funny nor absurd, and Tom’s agony over it is real and painful, for he thought he was done with that life years ago, and now he has too much to lose. Then too, unlike those of the other characters, Tom’s reflections travel in circles, as though Matthews’s conception of him runs a little thin.

Matthews means to point out how past deaths condemn the current generation to take up a struggle that shouldn’t be theirs. That’s what happens to the Dempseys, and it’s what Matthews thinks of the IRA: “Some histories you washed off quickly. Others you wallowed in like a sty.” In giving Michael the ghost of Yeats to push against, the author introduces an intellectual version of that Irish ideal, and that this Yeats is selfish, blind to family ties, and no help to Michael tells you all you need to know.

I like this generational theme, but I think Mathews could have achieved it without Cronin or Gavigan, and including them overburdens the novel. I don’t just mean the jarring difference in tone, or the less-than-full villains who drive this subplot, of which there are too many, and their attendant contrivances. The World of Tomorrow is chock-full.

Otherwise, it’s got something. One pleasure is the prose, descriptive, discursive, and rich, as you’d expect in a fizzy, vivacious story. For instance, here’s what Martin feels about his adopted city:

As much as he loved the electric charge that came from moving in a sea of bodies surging from one place to another — crossing a street in the moment the traffic signal changed, a swell of suit-and-tied men and sway-hipped women, each of them racing to get somewhere that seemed so important — there were times when he wanted to call a stop to it, to slow it all down and not be carried along anyone’s tide. This was why the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses — this was the New York he had come seeking. The city in a country hour. A time of deserted lanes and privacy amid the millions.

The World of Tomorrow, though it plays a few jarring notes, is good music for the mind and the heart.

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

This Blog Is Three Years Old: Or, Why I Read


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“I couldn’t connect with the characters.” As readers, we’ve all said that, at one time or other, and if you’ve written for publication, I guarantee you’ve heard it from agents or editors who turned down your work. But what does it imply? Is that connection entirely subjective, a matter of taste, and therefore meaningless except for that audience of one? After all, what kind of connection can you expect when there are so many books written about so many different characters?

I thought about these questions as I compiled my annual list of favorite books I’ve reviewed in the past year. They include three mysteries, a thriller, two picaresques, a Holocaust novel, a snapshot of youth, another of old age, and a tale of an infamous miscarriage of justice. I call just about all of them literary. But the one common thread? The characters compelled me. I wanted to know more about how they felt, because I could feel along with them. I expected to learn something about human nature from them, and I did.

Contrast that with two much-heralded novels I put aside recently, one about a woman who explores the Arctic, and the other, about a lynching. Compelling premises? Sure. Beautiful sentences? You got ’em. But these novels didn’t grab me. I didn’t know how the characters felt, even though the authors tried to tell me–and the problem wasn’t just that the narratives told rather than showed. The authors must have thought they created an emotional connection, but I felt none. I thought I was reading about events or actions or attitudes, and however unusual or significant they were, attention-grabbing by their content, they remained abstract.

Not that it’s easy to write that emotional connection. Last month, I attended a workshop given by the literary agent Donald Maas about his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which I’ve mentioned before. I’d gone to the workshop with a half-completed novel–half a house completed, if you will–and hoped to find out what could help me pull it together and finish it. By the third day, I realized that all I had was a big hole in the ground and a lot of building materials scattered around it.

So I’m very impressed with the following books and authors, who, no matter what their story or premise, have created that elusive emotional connection. In no particular order:

The Ballroom, by Anna Hope, tells of a man and woman trapped in a paupers’ institution in Yorkshire in 1911, and how he courts her through smuggled letters, unaware that she can’t read. Another desperate institutional romance, The Golden Age, by Joan London, takes place in an Australian sanitarium for juvenile polio victims in 1946. The kids, though stricken with a life-changing and potentially fatal disease, are much healthier than their parents and have bigger hearts.

By contrast, Sabina Murray’s Valiant Gentlemen takes place on a very large stage, starting with the Congo in the 1880s. Murray dazzles you without being self-conscious and sifts through the most serious subjects without taking herself too seriously–only two of the many pleasures of this novel re-creating actual historical figures. Steven Price’s By Gaslight, equally evocative, takes you into London’s underworld of 1885. It’s a long book, 731 pages, and Price builds his enthralling tale atom by atom.

Darktown, Thomas Mullen’s terrific mystery about two African-American cops in late 1940s Atlanta, is so tense, you think the novel might combust at any moment. Its deeply explored theme, racial politics within law enforcement, couldn’t be more timely. Gods of Gold, Chris Nickson’s mystery set in late Victorian Leeds, depicts the bare-knuckles life of a dreary industrial English city as well as the uphill struggle to uphold the law. Nickson conveys a depth of feeling and atmosphere in remarkably few words.

When the judges are the criminals, as they are in Crane Pond, Richard Francis’s retelling of the Salem witch trials, there’s no end to deviltry. But if you think you know the story, think again, for this judge was the only one to repent his actions, and the man’s internal struggles are compelling indeed. Crane Pond may be the most memorable book I read this year. And speaking of struggle, Mary Doria Russell’s, Doc, as in John Henry Holliday, wants to live life to the fullest in frontier Dodge City. A brilliant dentist, virtuoso pianist, and card shark, he inspires almost universal respect–but he’s dying of tuberculosis at age twenty-two.

Paulette Giles offers a very different view of the West in News of the World, about an itinerant town crier who reads newspapers to audiences starved for stories of other places. His outlook, demeanor, and personal code make him an irresistible character; I wish I knew someone like him. Better yet, I wish he were running the country. Amor Towles tells an inverse story to that in A Gentleman in Moscow, about an enemy of the Soviet state who’s sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. From this circumscribed life springs a tense, richly emotional and intellectual journey on a Tolstoyan scale.

Coincidentally, the last three on the list are the last three I reviewed–or maybe it’s no coincidence, since I finish few books these days unless they truly draw me in. Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s version of an eighteenth-century picaresque about a man arriving New-York in 1746 bearing a draft worth a thousand pounds, is a marvelous, page-turning moral tale. Is Richard Smith a bounder, a swindler, or an honest man worthy of immediate inclusion in high society? Everyone who’s anyone in New-York takes sides. A Single Spy, William Christie’s heart-stopping World War II thriller about an NKVD agent who doubles for the Abwehr, portrays a man who’s feral and disturbed, yet sympathetic. Impossible, you say? Read it and decide.

Finally, A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert, is simply one of the best Holocaust novels I’ve ever read. Set in Ukraine in 1941, her narrative has no heroes, speeches, nor forced redemptive moments, offering her characters only the chance of mercy.

As always, thanks for reading.

No Heroes Need Apply: A Boy in Winter


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Review: A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert
Pantheon, 2017. 242 pp. $26

Ukraine, autumn 1941, and the German invasion of Russia is now several months old. At first light, two young boys flee across their small town, trying to reach the schoolmaster’s house, in hopes he can tell them where to hide, whom to trust, assuming the rumors are true. But before they can get there, the Germans’ trucks roll in, and the boys must escape the unexpected trap.

The trucks’ arrival wakes Otto Pohl, a Wehrmacht engineer building a road through this forested, often marshy countryside, so that the invading forces may be efficiently supplied and reinforced. Otto’s a good sort, a conscientious man who believes the war to be criminal, which is why he volunteered to build a road in the Eastern wilderness, thinking that as army service went, he’d never be forced to see or do anything he’d hate himself for. He’s about to be proven wrong.

The Germans round up every Jew in town and drive them into a brick works, where they’re forced to stand, awaiting what they believe is transport further East. No one in town much cares; the victims are only Jews. What they do care about is the strict curfew the Germans have imposed and the constant threat of search and seizure. Nevertheless, Yasia, the teenage daughter of a prosperous farmer, decides to risk trying to reach her boyfriend, a deserter from the Red Army, now working for the invaders. She too sees more than she wanted.

Murder of Jews by SS paramilitaries, Invanhorod, Ukraine, 1942. This photo was taken by a German soldier serving in the East; a member of the Polish Resistance working in the Warsaw post office intercepted it for future documentation. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via Historical Archives, Warsaw; public domain)

Three things distinguish A Boy in Winter from the average Holocaust novel. The first is a refreshing lack of earnestness. Nobody makes any speeches about right or wrong to condemn or embrace anti-Semitism or the German regime. In fact, the characters say very little, though their thoughts, gestures, and actions speak loudly.

The characterizations, the second key asset, are so strong and nuanced — even the SS commandant — that you understand why things happen the way they do. There are no heroes here, only powerless people trying to balance fear and suspicion against their will to get by and see another day. A great many evils can happen through that calculus, but Seiffert is much more interested in showing them than in criticizing. And by focusing on the very small picture rather than the large one, she has much to say about both. For instance, why are the two boys the only ones who try to run away? Why is Yasia the only onlooker not to keep her head down? The answers lie in character, not plot manipulation, but more than that, you can’t read this novel without plugging yourself in place of these characters and wondering what you would do.

The third way A Boy in Winter succeeds is in its moral compass, which points not to redemption but the possibility of some small mercy. An overdetermined authorial urge for redemption has marred many an otherwise fine book, and, since it’s a Christian concept, I like it even less in a Holocaust novel. By reaching for less heavenly attributes — for what’s only a glimmer in this world of mortals — Seiffert achieves more.

To do so, she writes in spare, elegant prose, precisely fitting her spare, elegant narrative. Consider this flashback passage about Yankel, the elder boy who runs away (and the title character), through the eyes of his father, Ephraim. Yankel loves to look at photographs of his uncle Jaakov, Ephraim’s brother, who emigrated to Palestine:

He asked more about Jaakov as he got older, wanting more often to hear the stories of his travels and his olive trees, or even just to see his photo… And though Yankel sat with it quietly, content with his own thoughts, never saying very much, Ephraim saw — not without pain — the admiration in his son’s gaze. He began to feel, too, how his eldest’s eyes measured him, silently: the narrow walls of his workshop, the fastidious labour in the lenses he ground there, the tiny screws he tightened to hold them in their wire frames. The scope of his life was meagre, seen against his brother-in-law’s.

Not only is this a beautiful, evocative passage, revealing in a physical sense the rift between father and son, you understand why Ephraim is anxious to follow the Germans’ orders, whereas Yankel has no hesitation disobeying them. How Yankel got to be that way is of course very important, but Seiffert brings you there, just as she brings you everywhere else you need to go.

A Boy in Winter is a sublime, powerful, brilliant novel, among the finest about its subject that I’ve ever read.

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

Between Two Fires: A Single Spy


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Review: A Single Spy, by William Christie
Minotaur/St. Martin’s, 2017. 388 pp. $26

Alexsi Ivanovich Smirnov, the orphan-thief protagonist of this superb, hair-raising thriller, is both feral and sympathetic. I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but, then again, if you read A Single Spy — and if you like this genre at all, I suggest you do — you’ll discover that many things are possible.

The first is that Alexsi, as a mere teenager, is more than a match for the smugglers he’s taken up with in Azerbaijan. This would be a dangerous occupation anytime, but in 1936, there are Russian soldiers on one side and rival gangs on the other, and no one can afford scruples. Still, Alexsi trusts his instincts. As a practiced thief, he has a sixth sense for when others intend to rob or sell him, and whoever tries winds up with his throat cut. However, the NKVD catches him where he shouldn’t be, and just when he thinks he’s about to get a bullet in the skull, they startle him by offering him a job. If he passes their tests — and the penalty for failure is that bullet — he’ll work for them, doing the killing, robbing and prowling he’s always done, except for the state. The rewards can be enormous, as he learns immediately:

The first thing Alexsi noticed was that, unlike every other Soviet apartment, there wasn’t anyone else living there. Which was unprecedented in his experience. There were freshly painted walls and thick blue curtains. A sofa, chairs, a table. Spare and severe furniture, in the Soviet style, but to his eyes unbelievably luxurious. A gas stove and a refrigerator instead of an ice box. He opened it up and was greeted by a gust of cool air and shelves filled with food. Milk, sour cream, butter, cheese. If they were trying to impress him, it was working.

But everything’s a test. No question his handlers ask is ever innocent, no matter how it sounds, so he must think one step ahead, always. His greatest asset is his poker face, which conceals more than they know, in particular a detestation for bullies and a soft spot for a friend’s family, his only childhood respite from a violent, abusive father.

In the abstract, it seems improbable that an NKVD agent, hired and trained to be a ruthless operative for Comrade Stalin, would possess both a human core and a healthy skepticism of the Soviet regime. Yet Alexsi, despite his savage instincts for survival, has a code that tells him not to hurt anyone who hasn’t tried to harm him. Naturally, his instructions and that code will conflict. And the complications multiply, because he can only escape the fearful, terrifying Soviet Union by accepting an assignment to Berlin. There, he eventually joins the Abwehr and becomes a double agent, reporting everything back to Moscow at the risk of his life. Caught between two fires, Alexsi must be slippery indeed to avoid the flames. “No — and furthermore” governs every moment. Not only must he please his two masters while avoiding detection, once more, no conversation is innocent, no matter with whom. He takes to heart his NKVD mentor’s advice never to reveal his true identity to anyone, for any reason — and if they guess, he must find a way to dismiss it convincingly. The tension fairly ripples off the page.

Alexsi’s vantage point allows him to make private observations, comparing the two totalitarian regimes he knows. For instance, the night of Kristallnacht, he’s studying in a university library, when he overhears someone ask nervously whether the rioting in the streets has been authorized. If it is, that means they can go see what’s happening; if not, they must stay put. Alexsi thinks, This could only happen here.

Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

While reading A Single Spy, I thought often of Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers, another excellent thriller about the training and adventures of an NKVD agent. Christie takes a different approach, making Alexsi’s education a tutorial affair rather than at a school among inquisitive classmates, probably essential to the scheme, because it allows the spy-in-training to keep his inner self private. But the novels are similar in at least two respects. Both rely on atmosphere, and both introduce plenty of sex. Christie even has Alexsi’s training include it, in a chilling scene that I find hard to believe and suspect was included for its titillation. The only other false note is how Aleksi, as a junior agent in Berlin, manages to be told certain monumental secrets from none other than Wilhelm Canaris, the chief of the Abwehr.

But these are quibbles. Overall, A Single Spy satisfies in many ways.

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

For a Thousand Pounds: Golden Hill


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Review: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
Scribner, 2016. 302 pp. $26

“There is something maddeningly predictable about the way you procure disaster, Richard,” a friend tells the protagonist of this bold, extraordinary novel. “It is like someone winding a clock, as methodical as that. . . .”

That, at least, is the sympathetic view of Richard from within the insular community (population: seven thousand) of New-York in 1746, which is to say, lower Manhattan. The less sympathetic, more common, view of Richard Smith is that he’s a bounder, a fraud, a swindler. But the fault lies largely with New-York and less with Smith, despite the man’s willingness to admit mistakes; society’s indictments reflect more on the accusers than the accused. That’s the brilliance of Golden Hill, in which the central character is more reliable than the rest, and the disasters that accrue have more to do with society’s wrong-headed suppositions and cruel, inequitable laws.

Thomas Davies’s drawing of New York City, ca. 1770, perhaps from the perspective of Long Island. The steeple of Trinity Church is visible in the background (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The premise is elegantly simple, the sort I admire. Richard Smith, twenty-three, lands in New-York fresh from England and immediately proceeds to Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, where he presents a draft for a thousand pounds. Lovell doesn’t have such an enormous sum in hard money, though Mr. Lovell could procure it in goods, over time. But Smith wants cash. He won’t say why, what business he has, or why he came to the colonies to pursue it. Both self-interest and a merchant’s natural skepticism for the abstract prompt Lovell to imagine that Smith is playing an elaborate and potentially expensive hoax. Yet the newcomer presents a document that appears genuine, from a London concern with which Lovell has done business for years. Moreover, Smith argues a credible case, and his charm, good looks, and quick wit make a strong impression. Even so, Smith will have to wait until London confirms the draft. This is only fair.

All New-York waits with him and watches his every move. To possess such a large fortune, even theoretically, makes Smith an object of intense curiosity, no less the means by which he claims it and his polite, repeated refusals to explain his intentions. Opinions and motives are freely imputed to him, and every misstep becomes a reason for laughter, condemnation, or, conversely, temporary alliance with a political faction hoping to use him for its own advantage. But, on the chance that he’s who he says he is, no one can afford to reject him categorically. Rather, Smith is swept up into the highest circles right away, starting with Lovell’s household, which includes two marriageable daughters.

The elder, Tabitha, intrigues Smith. To onlookers, that in itself causes laughter and amazement, for Tabitha Lovell has a misanthropically sharp tongue and seems to enjoy making herself unpleasant. But Golden Hill is about freedom, real and imaginary. Smith has astutely deduced that Tabitha is a prisoner of her fears as much as she indulges the freedom to taunt everyone else, and he attempts to draw her out and show her he empathizes.

However, empathy is a commodity in short supply, even scarcer than self-knowledge. The friend who tells Smith that he “procures disaster” lays out the situation this way:

This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do. You would think, talking to the habitants, that all the vices and crimes of humanity had been left behind on the other shore. Take ’em as they take themselves, and they are the innocentest shopkeepers, placid and earnest, plucked by a lucky fortune out from corruption. But the truth is that they are wild, suspicious, combustible–and the devil to govern. . . . In all their relations they are prompt to peer and gaze for the hidden motive, the worm in the apple, the serpent in the garden they insist their New World to be.

Spufford is tweaking the American pretense of virtue–someone should, especially these days–but there’s much more to this passage than that. Smith’s friend is warning him that nothing will happen in a straight line, and indeed, it doesn’t. Twists and turns abound; if ever there was proof that “no–and furthermore” belongs in literary novels, not just suspense, Golden Hill is Exhibit A. But Spufford is also framing his themes: the hypocrisy concerning sexual standards, social class, wealth, race, and rule of law that emerge between the lines of this mesmerizing narrative and force the reader to ask what freedom means.

Finally, the passage suggests the tone of Golden Hill, whose vocabulary, cadences, and attitudes lovingly reflect and re-create an eighteenth-century picaresque. Spufford has wisely refrained from slavishly imitating Tobias Smollett (whom he quotes in an epigraph) or Henry Fielding, but he’s written in a form recognizably similar, and he adopts their style and form in pitch-perfect fashion.

Golden Hill is a masterpiece. That’s all there is to it.

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