An Indomitable Vietnamese Matriarch: The Mountains Sing

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Review: The Mountains Sing, by Nguyen Phan Qué Mai
Algonquin, 2020. 342 pp. $27

During the early 1970s, the waning years of American involvement in the Vietnam War, Tran Dieu Lan tells her granddaughter why their family lives now in Ha Noi, how they came to lose their prosperous farm, and about the several wars that have dispersed their family — they pray not permanently. It’s a mind-boggling story, full of senseless violence, courage, excruciating suffering, and an indomitable will not just to survive but to hope for better times. And even as Dieu Lan tells it, the Americans are still trying (in the inimitable phrase of General Curtis LeMay) to “bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age,” while the Ha Noi government demands ever-increasing sacrifices and punishes defeatists.

The content of these stories provide the main reason to read The Mountains Sing. The Vietnam War, which I remember well from my teenage and young adult years, matters greatly to me, and I want to know more about “the other side.” To an extent, this novel fills that gap, so I recommend it despite its many flaws.

I don’t see a novel here, but a fictional memoir, if you will, based on the author’s family lore and anecdotes she collected. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s no unifying plot, just plot points, a bushel of them, about life under the French colonials, Japanese invaders during World War II, and the Ha Noi government, both in the 1950s and later. (Note an elision, the relative absence of Americans as aggressors, which I’ll get to in a minute.) It’s Vietnam’s painful history on display, and the occasional kindness or lenience provides a sharp contrast.

U.S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle’s March 1968 photo of the My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of civilians, prevented the army from hushing it up. Apparently, Haeberle had two cameras–one official, one personal–and this photo came from the latter (courtesy U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The most memorable episode concerns the so-called Land Reform of 1955, presumably intended to root out “exploitive capitalists,” a euphemism that excuses terror, whose aftermath reverberates in agonizing ways. Another gripping section portrays traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by which the north supplied its military effort in the south, and which I’ve seen in documentaries but never in fiction.

I also like the renderings of everyday life, ingenious, appalling, or both. You see the bicycle repairman who fixes flats using materials like toothpicks; you learn the types of roots, berries, and insects you have to forage when you’re on the run. I also like the many aphorisms that appear in dialogue, like, “One bite when starving equates one bundle when full,” or, “Perseverance grinds iron into needles.”

There’s a difference between story content and storytelling, though, and here’s where the novel falters. Qué Mai sets up plenty of emotional conflicts but has trouble deepening or staying with them. Sometimes her prose undermines her effort, as with transitions like this: “Those who killed him wanted to uproot and erase our family. I couldn’t let that happen.” Further, the Tran family and those who help them seem highly idealized. They all try to do the right thing; no grudge ever goes unreconciled; and despite a horrific war and limitless suffering, nobody holds onto hatred, especially not toward the most conspicuous perpetrators. Villains, meanwhile, are all bad.

However, the most curious way the author protects her characters involves the war itself. To no surprise, all the men are conscripted, but the narrative never shows them killing a single enemy soldier. One recruit witnesses an ambush of American GIs bathing, but he’s too sick with malaria to pull the trigger himself, and he feels only sympathy for the victims. Aside from the bombing raids; a parenthetical mention that American firepower killed three million Vietnamese; and a brief section about the defoliant Agent Orange, you’d barely know Americans ever fought in or injured Vietnam. South Vietnamese troops commit the only war crime presented as such.

This is the elision I referred to, which also seems to glide over the French colonial power before and after World War II. The Ha Noi government appears far worse than anyone else, but it’s rather strange to have characters openly prefer democracy over their own dictatorship, when the democratic government is the one dropping the bombs. If the narrative had dealt squarely with that contradiction, the novel might have had a chance to soar, but that grappling never happens. Instead, I’m left wondering whether the author wishes to whitewash her soldier characters from any killing they might have done; avoid offending American readers (whom I doubt would blame her for showing Vietnamese defending their country); or focus solely on the pity of war for all participants. Whatever the reason, soft-pedaling American evil while condemning all other kinds twists the narrative’s moral compass, when morality is the entire point.

Nevertheless, The Mountains Sing matters for its content, and if you’re at all curious about Vietnam, I suggest you read it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.

What Freedom Is: Washington Black

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Review: Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan
Random House/Vintage, 2019. 384 pp. $17

There may be more brutal, unfeeling masters than Erasmus Wilde, owner of Faith sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830, but it’s hard to imagine. For instance, when a slave commits suicide, an overseer decapitates his corpse. Why? The slaves believe that once they die, they’ll be reunited with their people in Africa. So Wilde tells them that headless corpses wander for eternity; beware, there’s no escape. If you kill yourself, you’re a thief, stealing his property.

Such crushing logic, which warps every conceivable interaction, cows nearly all the slaves into hopeless submission; most do all they can to remain inconspicuous. Consequently, when Wilde’s brother Christopher comes to stay, eleven-year-old George Washington Black (known as Wash) is terrified to discover that he’s been chosen the newcomer’s manservant.

To his amazement, however, Christopher — who insists on being called Titch — is cut from a very different cloth, as Wash quickly learns whenever he must go to the big house and wait table. Titch has no interest in slavery, except to abolish it; and Faith’s chief attractions for him are the flora and fauna and a steep hill from which he hopes to launch a balloon for exploration.

Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1848, fourteen years after Britain outlawed slavery throughout the empire (from Robert H. Schombergk, The History of Barbados; courtesy British Library via Wikimedia Commons)

But a suspicious death forces the two to flee — and from that moment, Wash begins to imagine the life he could never have dreamed of. Whether he gets it or not, and how he reinvents himself in the process, makes as compelling a novel as you will find. Washington Black will captivate you and make you think.

Edugyan examines, from the inside, what it means to be a slave, to have no will of your own save what little is granted, and which may be taken away at any time. That sounds obvious, but I assure you, in its moment-to-moment portrayal here, that simply stated condition has deep, insidious effects that wrap around the characters like the roots of an evil, destructive plant.

Titch may dislike slavery, yet Wash wonders what, exactly, he means to his new boss. Is Wash a real person or merely the perfect size and shape ballast for the balloon? Is his a young mind Titch respects, or does the scientist teach him what he needs to become a better assistant? As with all the characters, and I do mean all, the author depicts this pair in their fullness, so that you know their internal struggles. Even Erasmus Wilde, a truly despicable man, has his angles and quirks; no cardboard villain, he. In that way, he receives his due, even as the perpetrator of great evil.

To write a good novel about a victim is harder than it looks. (Writing any good novel is harder than it looks, but that’s another story.) Self-pity would undermine the narrative and warp the reader’s connection to Wash, while earnestness, the flip side of that coin, would demean this tale. Not here. Wash hates his enemies with a razor fierceness, no righteousness, bravado, or breast-beating allowed, just earned hostility. Whatever self-pity creeps in momentarily overtakes him in a different context — love, which is only natural and quite real. Everyone in love acts entitled once in a while, at least.

Also important, Wash never stops striving and loving, no matter what blows he takes. Suffering by itself holds only a tenuous connection for readers; but caring for someone else despite suffering always wins. If Wash becomes remarkably adept at certain pursuits, perhaps stretching credulity, his path remains difficult, often perilous, his adventures allowing for (if not demanding) a character somewhat larger than life.

Throughout, he’s a spectacular observer, the prose being another pleasure of the book, as with his first look at Bridge Town, the capital of Barbados:

Swells of dust boiled up off the roads. Horses trotted past, heads low in the heat, flies swarming. We clattered past a sailor on a street corner blowing through some bizarre knot of pipes, while beside him a second danced along to his own fiddle, his fingers flying like shadows over the strings. We stopped in the sudden traffic; through the carriage oozed the stink of overripe fruit carted in from the port, and of immense slabs of tuna starting to turn in the heat. At a passing market stall I glimpsed their fishy eyes, fissured with blood as they gawked on beds of cool leaves.

Sometimes, in the early going when Wash is still a young boy, the voice slips — the narrative makes observations seemingly too knowledgeable for a lad, even one looking back from later years. But that’s a minor blemish on a superb novel, and I highly recommend Washington Black.

Disclaimer: I bought my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that shares its receipts with independent bookstores.

Rocket Terror: V2

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Review: V2, by Robert Harris
Knopf, 2020. 312 pp. $29

In late November 1944, the Germans rain V2 rockets on London, killing hundreds of civilians, and destroy thousands of homes at supersonic speed. Once the rockets launch from the Dutch coast, they take mere minutes to cross the North Sea and land with no warning save for a last-second shift in air pressure. By that time, it’s too late to seek shelter. The V2, named for Vergeltung, meaning “retribution” or “payback,” is more terrifying and arbitrary than any weapon previously known.

One morning, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in Britain’s women’s air service (WAAF) discovers this firsthand. Shacking up for the weekend with a high-ranking (and married) Air Ministry official, she’s lucky to survive a rocket attack, as is her lover. That gives her extra motivation, as if she needed any, to return to her work, which involves analyzing aerial photographs of potential launch sites. The RAF has tried many times to take them out but always fail. So the V2s keep coming, seemingly from nowhere, and entire blocks of London keep getting smashed. Kay would like to fight back more effectively — and when word comes of a mission to track them from Belgium, she persuades her lover to have her sent there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rudi Graf, a rocketry expert and longtime colleague of Wernher von Braun, who runs the V2 program, prepares the missiles for launch in the Dutch seaside town of Scheveningen. He has little fear of the RAF, whose raids strike the town, surrounding area, or the seashore, never the launch sites. But he does fear the SS, which has strengthened its grip on every aspect of the war effort and looks over his shoulder constantly, sniffing for disloyalty or its perceived equivalent, lack of patriotic zeal.

Wernher von Braun, center, facing, wearing the Nazi Party lapel pin, talks to Fritz Todt, center, Peenemünde, March 1941. Todt’s slave laborers died by the thousands to build von Braun’s underground rocket works there (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

And indeed, Graf is no zealot. He tries not to think about what the rockets he has developed actually do to London, or what that means. For the most part, he succeeds at putting action and effect in different compartments of his mind. But Braun originally recruited him to investigate the feasibility of space travel, and Graf can’t separate theory from practice or justify one to the other so easily. He wonders what he’s doing there.

The sixth Harris novel I’ve read, V2 feels the weakest. A few trademarks make their appearance, all right — a sure grasp of history, mastery of detail, physical descriptions. Wherever the narrative goes, Harris grounds you in the scene, whether a London street, a ministerial office, a launch site, or a brothel, all delivered with economy. Early on, for instance, you see how the war has completely changed Scheveningen:

Rain was gusting off the sea, funneled down the side streets between the abandoned hotels. The pier had burned down the previous year. Its blackened iron spars protruded above the running white-capped waves like the masts of the shipwreck. The beach was sown with barbed wire and tank traps. Outside the railway station a few tattered tourist posters from before the war showed a pair of elegant women in striped bathing costumes and cloche hats tossing a ball to one another.

However, unlike, say, An Officer and a Spy, The Second Sleep, or Dictator, the author focuses on public stakes almost to the exclusion of his characters, which results in a less thrilling thriller. By that, I mean plot points like a rocket launch or Kay’s analysis efforts provide most of the tension, fairly humdrum, with few “no — and furthermore” moments, because the characters’ inner lives fail to color the events or enlarge them in significance.

I really don’t care whom Kay sleeps with. Despite feminist overtones to the WAAF war contribution, she’s too much a sex object for my taste, and the love affair that gets her a much sought-after assignment feels contrived. On the other hand, I do want to know what about the rockets compels her; saying she wishes to do something important or useful doesn’t suffice. After all, the war affects every aspect of life, and there are many ways to serve.

Graf has a little more to him; you see the scientist trapped into serving weaponry, though it’s a trap he willingly entered. But, unlike the case with other Harris novels, I don’t see his deep passion or resistance. Mostly, he seems tired and wishes he could somehow take action, though in what way, he’s not sure.

If, however, you want to read a fast-moving outline of how the V2 rockets came to exist and how they worked, this book may satisfy you. You also see why Wernher von Braun deserved a war-crimes trial rather than a cushy job in America’s space program. But if you’ve never read a Robert Harris thriller, don’t start with this one.

Disclaimer: I bought my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, which shares its profits with independent bookstores.

Mayhem in Malaya: The Night Tiger

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Review: The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo
Flatiron, 2019. 384 pp. $18

In May 1931, Ren, a young Malay orphan who keeps house for a doctor, receives a request that you know will haunt him and put him in harm’s way. With almost his last breath, the doctor, who’s missing a finger, orders Ren to find that digit and bury it in his grave. The command startles Ren, but not for the reasons you might think. Malay folklore holds that if a dead body isn’t buried whole, the soul will wander forever, so in that sense, the request is perfectly reasonable.

But Dr. MacFarland, as his name suggests, is Scots, and though the dying man has long studied local culture — unusually, for a European — Ren never expected such an assignment. It’s a heavy charge for a ten-year-old, even one who pretends to be thirteen, even though the doctor has shown him great kindness. And he’s got forty-nine days to complete his task, or the doctor’s soul will never rest.

Meanwhile, Ji Lin, a young Chinese woman, has taken a second job to support her mother’s gambling debts at mah-jongg. By regular trade, Ji Lin’s a seamstress’s apprentice, a profession she has little desire for, but the only career her punitive, autocratic stepfather will allow. On the sly, she works for a dance hall as an “instructor,” paid to accompany men who, of course, take whatever liberties they can. If anyone finds out, she’ll be ostracized, not to mention the violent wrath she’ll face at home. But just when she’s hoping to leave the dance hall forever, a greasy businessman she particularly dislikes gets too frisky. In the scuffle, her hand winds up in his pocket and pulls out a glass vial containing a human finger. Despite her instincts, she keeps it without telling him.

The Malaysian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), has been on the endangered list since 2015. This one lives at the National Zoo Malaysia, Ampang (2011, courtesy Tu7uh via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

From this complex, dizzying, but deftly rendered setup ensues a mystery that’s dark, enthralling, and singular. You know that Ren and Ji Lin will meet sooner or later, but I advise you to make no other assumptions. Many suspicious deaths and strange occurrences happen within each character’s extended circle of acquaintances, though the two circles may or may not connect in expected ways.

The one thing you do find out, because The Night Tiger derives much of its considerable fascination from local culture, is that these two protagonists’ names belong to the Five Confucian Virtues, as do those of — you guessed it — three other characters. The most important of those is Yi, Ren’s twin, who died several years before, and of whom he has frequent, violent dreams. But Yi also provides Ren a sixth sense about how to pursue his quest for the doctor’s missing finger and of danger in general. Further, though it’s not always clear how, some or all of the five have strayed from the virtues they represent, which causes further danger. Accordingly, the narrative becomes a moral tale as well as a mystery, and that uncovering the villains is only half the struggle, the rest having to do with good and evil.

Complicated as this is, I still wish that the author had held that moral theme more firmly to the end. But there’s plenty in this book, starting with the legends of the tiger, hence the title. Like many Malayans, Ren fears and admires that beast, often accused of nighttime rampages among human habitation. Even a tiger rug gives the boy pause:

Despite the indignity of being draped across the floor, its fur worn away in patches, the glaring glass eyes warn him away. Tiger eyes are prized for the hard parts in the center, set in gold as rings and thought to be precious charms, as are the teeth, whiskers, and claws. A dried and powdered liver is worth twice its weight in gold as medicine.

There’s more yet. Aside from beliefs in weretigers (analogous to werewolves) and their alleged crimes, we have cultural obsession with lucky or unlucky omens, forbidden love, and feminism — Ji Lin has always wanted to enter medicine, but that’s reserved for Shin, her stepbrother (whose name reflects another of the Five Virtues). The provincial landscape comes alive, but that’s not all, for you can practically taste the place. Throughout, the food the characters cook, serve, or consume will lose you your mind — rendang, sambal, noodle soups, desserts of coconut and tapioca. I’m looking through my recipe collection.

Normally, I shy away from supernatural influences in fiction, but The Night Tiger wins me over. Not only does the cultural background feel entirely lived-in and essential, the story never relies on the supernatural out of convenience, because little is convenient here. I like less how the mysteries resolve, which seems obvious and predictable, in part. That’s the only aspect that feels less than entirely satisfying, and a bit contrived.

Overall, however, The Night Tiger is immensely satisfying, and I highly recommend it.

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

Island Idyll: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House/Dial, 2008. 290 pp. $17

Early 1946, Juliet Ashton, a British journalist and author of lighthearted essays, tires of her book tour and finds little inspiration in London, where (male) gossip columnists and pundits resent her success. She’s also looking for Mr. Right and, at age thirty-two, despairs of finding him — or even knowing who he’d be, if she tripped over him in broad daylight.

Intrigue comes via letter: A man on the island of Guernsey has acquired a book, second-hand, that once belonged to Juliet, who left her name and address inside the front cover. Since the Germans occupied the island during the recent war, no bookshops exist there any longer; and since he likes the book, selected essays by Charles Lamb, could Miss Ashton please give him the name of a London bookshop that could sell him more? And, by the way, she might like to know that, partly because of her old book, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into existence.

Girls evacuated from the Channel Islands in 1940 to Marple, Cheshire, try on clothes and shoes donated by America (courtesy Ministry of Information and Imperial War Museum, London, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Naturally, this piques Juliet’s interest, so she writes back, sparking an avid correspondence between the several members of the literary society and herself. Meanwhile, Juliet writes and receives other letters — from the publisher (also a friend), his sister (another friend), an obnoxious American who’s courting her, and other Guernsey residents who don’t belong to the literary society but have opinions about it, and the participants, they must share. Many of these acquaintanceships cross. To no surprise, Juliet comes to believe — hope — that her next book will revolve around the German occupation of the island.

I usually avoid epistolary novels, but this one manages to work, chiefly because the milk of human kindness runs like a river through its pages, and I enjoy the portraits of the island eccentrics. They have names like Isola and Dawsey, and there’s a fellow with a more commonplace moniker but singular taste — he’s read only one book in his life, by Marcus Aurelius, and his friends show great patience every time the society meets, when he lectures them about it.

Humor peppers the letters, as with Juliet’s publisher’s remark about her American suitor: “He’s all charm and oil, and he gets what he wants. It’s one of his few principles.” Or Juliet’s observation that, because Charles Lamb taught Leigh Hunt’s youngest daughter how to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards, “You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.”

You may have concluded by now that the authors have striven for an Austenesque touch, and you’d be right. (Austen’s books also make a cameo appearance.) As a series of vignettes about good-hearted characters, Guernsey succeeds, and though at times treacle threatens, the narrative mostly avoids that pitfall. If you’re looking for an edge, you won’t find it here, but there’s longing and pain to leaven the story.

Some epistolary novels suffer from contrivance, particularly the looseness with which the entries logically connect, but that doesn’t bother me here. If you read Guernsey, don’t expect high stakes or a gripping storyline; the significant questions are too mundane, as in, will Juliet find a writing subject for her book and, in the bargain, true love?

Nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking light entertainment, purely. Guernsey doesn’t take itself too seriously, and therein lies its charm. Perhaps because letters say only so much — or these letters do—I don’t find Juliet a full, memorable character, so her concerns don’t compel me. But they don’t have to; characters like Isola, who makes herbal potions that everyone politely avoids, dabbles in phrenology, and fashions herself a would-be Miss Marple, carry the load, such as it is. Unfortunately, the American suitor is a caricature of the rich, narcissistic male; his opposite, a central figure of island life deported by the Germans for wartime acts of resistance, reads more like an ideal than a real person. The minor characters, consequently, steal the show.

For the most part, Guernsey capably straddles that perilous territory between humor and hideousness, offering a glimpse of the Occupation, in seemingly different version from its Continental counterparts. Maybe the authors airbrush a few things, but in the main, I believe their account. I do wish they hadn’t introduced a French refugee incarcerated at Ravensbrück, who seems to need only a few months on the island, among new friends, to become whole enough to cope. Sure.

But these are quibbles. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society makes fun reading, a short, not-too-sweet tale of warmth and humor.

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

Murder Among the Four Hundred: An Extravagant Death

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Review: An Extravagant Death, by Charles Finch
Minotaur, 2021. 304 pp. $28

London, 1878. For political reasons, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asks the most famous detective in Britain, Charles Lenox, to leave the country for a few weeks. But Charles would rather refuse, for his wife has just given birth to their second daughter, and his work has taken him away from home too often. However, he’s always dreamed of travel, and Disraeli is nothing if not persuasive. With his family’s blessing, Charles sets sail.

New York captures his fancy, but it’s on a train to Boston that an importunate, extremely wealthy man named Schermerhorn, of old Knickerbocker lineage, has sent an equally importunate bodyguard to request Charles’s presence in Newport, Rhode Island. A murder has taken place, and Schermerhorn requires his help; Lenox may name his price.

You need not have read any of the prior thirteen installments in the Lenox series to understand that such a peremptory request — delivered at an unscheduled stop on the train, arranged by Schermerhorn — would irritate any English gentleman of breeding. Charles, though liberal-minded about many aspects of life, might have turned away on principle, except that the brightest spot in his trip so far has been Teddy Blaine, a young, would-be detective who’s followed Charles’s cases with keen interest and an even keener mind. Teddy pleads with Lenox to ignore Schermerhorn’s manner and look into the case.

“The” Mrs. Astor, leader of the Four Hundred, née Caroline Webster Schermerhorn. Artist unknown, portrait said to date from 1860, which seems improbably late (source unknown; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

So Charles investigates the death of a beautiful, nineteen-year-old debutante, Lily Allingham, who took a fatal blow to the head. Lily had many suitors, but the two most serious were Schermerhorn’s son and his rival, a Vanderbilt, if you please. Given the immediate circumstances Charles observes in Newport, such as the timing of the death, position of the body, and so forth, he suspects both young men.

Naturally there are lies, other suspects, and inconvenient facts that cloud the picture. But, as with all Lenox novels, Finch has social commentary in mind as well as mystery, and he has a field day here. Even a moderately wealthy English aristocrat can’t fathom the opulence on display in Newport, or square it with the way most people live. For instance, he hears of the “cottages” that front the ocean along a cliff, only to discover that they are thirty-bedroom mansions, decorated with English treasures sold by impecunious dukes.

When he enters Schermerhorn’s “cottage,” he finds it

plain by the palatial standards of this town, but sturdy down to its last nail. The floors of the broad, airy hallways never once creaked; the alabaster walls, hung with portraits of sober old New Yorkers of a different epoch, seemed to whisper a quiet word of demonstration against all things modern, all things adorned, anything but plain wood and white paint.

Yet the plainness is a sham; witness the hundreds of servants on staff, from gardeners to kitchen maids, who make the house run — a summer house, be it known. It’s this world within a world that Lenox must navigate, and though Teddy Blaine helps him (coming from a wealthy family himself), many social or cultural cues go over his head.

For the most part, I like the mystery, cleverly conceived, with plenty of “no — and furthermore,” though I find the political reasons for Charles’s departure from America a bit contrived. More significantly, the surprise resolution devolves into psychological territory I usually think of as a copout, though I will say that Finch comes close to making up for it with a nuanced approach. I can’t recall another Lenox novel with even the whiff of copout, and I’ve read at least a half-dozen.

An Extravagant Death offers many pleasures, however, especially the social scenes, all rendered with authority, whether a meeting with Disraeli or a Caroline Astor soirée, complete in fascinating detail. Regular Lenox readers will wonder, in the first third or so of the book, what happened to the quaint facts that Finch loves to explain; never fear, they’ll come in time. If you’ve ever wondered how such idioms as backlog, grapevine, or white elephant entered the language, or what a calling card with one corner folded down signified, wonder no more. Equally characteristic of the series, each book explores a different, relatively untouched aspect of Charles’s life, in this case, fatherhood. The narrative doesn’t dwell long on this subject, but I like what appears very much, and these scenes also give an idea of how an upper-classic Victorian family viewed children.

Overall, I’d judge An Extravagant Death of lesser note than a couple others in the series, including the previous volume, The Last Passenger. But even a less-than-stellar Lenox tale is very good and well worth your time.

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

Controlling the Heavens: Jade Dragon Mountain

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Review: Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2015. 321 pp. $18

In 1708, Li Du, a scholar banished from Beijing for political reasons, enters Dayan (modern-day Lijiang), a major town in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, along the Tea Horse Road, the caravan path by which that all-important beverage travels. It’s a dangerous frontier, where, outside the city, bandits freely ply their trade, and a region only recently brought within Qing imperial power, whose Ming predecessors still inspire loyalty. But Li Du has no intentions of staying there a minute longer than he has to, especially since a cousin of his, Tulishen, serves as magistrate, witness to his family shame of exile.

Ernest Henry Wilson’s 1908 photograph of two men laden with “bricks” of tea, Szechuan Province, China (courtesy Arnold Arboretum Archives, Harvard, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, according to the law, the wandering scholar must present his travel papers to Tulishen, and once he does, he’s drawn into an insidious plot. A Jesuit priest, Father Pieter, is found dead, and Tulishen rather quickly decides that the elderly cleric died of natural causes. Li Du, who met the Jesuit only briefly yet came away impressed, believes the man deserves justice, and when the circumstances point to murder, the exile reasons that his cousin has ample reason to pretend otherwise. The emperor will arrive in Dayan in a week, and Tulishen is responsible for managing the lavish festival of welcome. The magistrate hopes to make such a strong impression that he receives an appointment in Beijing and can leave Dayan, which he detests.

Moreover, the emperor’s visit will coincide with a solar eclipse, which must appear to occur at imperial command (though insiders know that Jesuit astronomers provide him with the calculations and predictions that permit him to act out the charade). Through that, he hopes to consolidate his power in the region. But a suspicious death — especially of a Jesuit astronomer, as Pieter was — would cast an unlucky pall on the festival and the imperial political designs. Nevertheless, you know Li Du will be called upon to investigate, and when he proves foul play to his cousin’s grudging satisfaction, he will be tasked with solving the murder before the emperor arrives.

I admire how Hart fits all the social, cultural, and political pieces together in a cohesive, authoritative whole. As in any good mystery, she has a collection of plausible suspects, each of whom appears in depth through Li Du’s eyes; you know their desires, weaknesses, and strengths. Aside from the protagonist, the many fine characters include the magistrate, his aide, a professional storyteller, the magistrate’s consort, a British envoy, a Jesuit botanist.

The mystery unfolds under a tense, short time frame, and you wonder, as Li Du does, how he can possibly make his deadline. Many complications and difficult characters provide stumbling blocks, and just because he has official sanction to investigate doesn’t mean he hears the truth. On the contrary; everyone has a secret to hide, but whether that vulnerability would motivate murder is another question.

So the novel is a classic mystery in that sense. But the narrative offers much more, because Hart knows the time and place inside out in all its sensations and cultural cues. Consider, for example, Li Du’s recollections of the tea-producing country:

He remembered… the lush mountains in which [the tea leaves] had grown, where heavy flowers stirred like slow fish in the mist. These leaves had been dried, knotted in cloth, and enclosed in bamboo sheathes, ready to be strapped to saddles and taken north by trade caravans.
As they traveled, they would retain the taste of their home, of the flowers, the smoke and metal heat of the fires that had shriveled them. But they would also absorb the scents of the caravan: horse sweat, the musk of meadow herbs, and the frosty loam of the northern forests. The great connoisseurs of tea could take a sip and follow in their mind the entire journey of the leaves, a mapped trajectory of taste and fragrance.

My only complaint about Jade Dragon Mountain is the climactic tell-all scene when Li Du faces a roomful of suspects. By now, I think that convention has tired itself out, and the way in which Li Du lays out his thinking strikes me as overly theatrical, a trait he decidedly does not possess — not to mention the way the suspects, all more powerful than he, somehow sit still for his presentation.

But the novel is a pleasure, from many angles, and though it lacks the humor of Hart’s later book reviewed here, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, I think I prefer this one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.

Good, Evil, and Hope: Deacon King Kong

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Review: Deacon King Kong, by James McBride
Riverhead, 2020. 370 pp. $28

Few people even know his real name, because he never uses it. Even the police confuse him with someone else, because he shares a driver’s license with another man, which makes his official record almost untraceable. But to the residence of the Causeway Housing Projects (the Cause) in south Brooklyn, he’s Sportcoat, because of the colorful assortment he wears of that garment.

His finest moment came umpiring the Cause baseball team, now disbanded. These days, the former deacon of Five Ends Baptist Church spends his time high on King Kong, the popular name for a friend’s moonshine, and talks to his late wife, Hettie. Or thinks he does, and nobody can persuade him otherwise.

Except that in summer 1969, Sportcoat shoots Deems, a teenage kingpin of the Cause drug traffic, and his former baseball protégé, at point-blank range. Sportcoat claims not to have understood what he was doing, but nobody believes that, least of all, the police. But he’s the type of character who doesn’t care what anybody thinks, alternately perplexing, amusing, and horrifying everyone else.

From that shooting springs a complicated, finely woven story, involving Five Ends, cheese deliveries, storytelling as an art form, the racism that warps life in the projects, unlikely romances, what constitutes good in the face of so much evil, and how humans dare to hope.

A portion of the Red Hook Houses project, south Brooklyn, as it appeared in 2012 at Lorraine and Henry Streets (courtesy Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But I’d be doing Deacon King Kong a disservice if I failed to mention what a rollicking good time the novel is. Pick almost any paragraph, and you’ll find sprawling, delicious sentences like these, oozing with spicy flavor:

Meanwhile Sister Bibb, the voluptuous church organist, who at fifty-five years old was thick-bodied, smooth and brown as a chocolate candy bar, arrived in terrible shape. She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted, booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance.

And for those who appreciate snappy dialogue, look no further. What in the Sixties we used to call “rank-outs” or “snaps” appear here in a poetic form guaranteed to prompt laughter. For instance: “But that idiot’s so dumb he lights up a room by leaving it.” Or: “Son, you looks like a character witness for a nightmare.” McBride has a superb ear and inventive pen, which makes the narrative a delightful ride.

For the first two chapters, McBride even goes a little too far, I think, unraveling so many stories within stories, and with such far-ranging flights of verbal fancy, that I worried. I thought reading Deacon King Kong would be like eating an entire tub of caramel pecan ice cream in a half-hour, past my limit. But the narrative settles down somewhat, to the extent that it does, and McBride’s storytelling skills come to the fore.

Every spoonful matters, as details you might have glossed over come back to play important roles. Characters cross paths in natural yet unexpected ways, and points of view transition gracefully from one to other. Sportcoat moves through the novel oblivious to the effect he has on others, the ultimate catalyst — and denies it, if anyone should point it out to him.

Two key themes emerge. One involves how white interpretations of Black life rest on lies that Black people need not — must not — accept, even if they can do nothing else to fulfill themselves. Dignity requires insisting on the truth. Within that, a person finds meaning and hope by taking small actions, even though they won’t change the big picture. That’s all anyone can do.

As historical fiction, the novel gets down to neighborhood level, as in how the influx or departure of certain groups changes the Cause, how the police or certain agencies function differently from the past, or how drugs have taken over, and the horrific damage that follows. That’s what 1969 means here, aside from frequent references to the New York Mets. And though I yield to no one in my love for that team, I do wish McBride had gone a little further. In particular, I’d have liked to hear more about the Vietnam War, for instance, because maybe residents of the Cause had strong feelings about fighting the white man’s war in Southeast Asia.

But Deacon King Kong is a terrific book and a testament to the author’s range and vision.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, a bookseller that shares its receipts with independent bookstores.

The Marsh Girl: Where the Crawdads Sing

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Review: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Putnam, 2018. 368 pp. $28

Six-year-old Kya doesn’t know her real name is Catherine, nor has she ever been to school. All she knows is the South Carolina marsh where she lives with several siblings, a drunken, violent father, and a much put-upon mother. But in summer 1952, Ma walks out, after which Kya’s brothers and sisters follow. Little Kya has to raise herself, essentially, because her father’s often absent on a bender, which can be a blessing. Her only friends are wild creatures, whose habits she comes to know intimately; her greatest, sole pleasure.

You see the wild creatures she loves, rendered with insight and deep feeling:

A great blue heron is the color of gray mist reflecting in blue water. And like the mist, she can fade into the backdrop, all of her disappearing except the concentric circles of her lock-and-load eyes. She is a patient, solitary hunter, standing alone as long as it takes her to snatch her prey. Or, eyeing her catch, she will stride forward one slow step at a time, like a predacious bridesmaid. And yet, on rare occasions she hunts on the wing, darting and diving sharply, swordlike beak in the lead.

Kya herself might answer to this description, especially that of the “patient, solitary hunter.” The vivid portrait of nature in a place nobody else wants, whose human inhabitants the inlanders consider trash, provides a superb background. And the tale of how this girl grows up by her own wits (and kindness of strangers), terrified of just about everybody and everything except the marsh, makes remarkable reading.

However, Where the Crawdads Sing doesn’t settle for the unusual coming-of-age story, and therein rests its greatest shortcoming. Jumping ahead to 1969, as many of these short chapters do, there’s a mystery as well. A former high school quarterback, the town Lothario, is found dead in the marsh. You guess right away that the police, utterly incompetent and desperate to find a murderer (they refuse to accept that such a demigod could have died accidentally), will home in on the Marsh Girl, what the locals call her. She’s reputed savage, lustful, and depraved, the townsfolk’s way saying that she’s different from them, therefore expendable.

The All-Star Bowling Alley, Orangeburg, South Carolina, pictured in 2015. In February 1968, police opened fire on Black students protesting the alley’s segregation policy at the time. Three students were killed and dozens injured. (Courtesy Ammodramus, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Granted, the southern-justice narrative provides an instantly recognizable means to raise the stakes. But Owens introduces the death in a prologue and keeps the police procedure front and center, as if the mind-boggling story of a little girl in a marsh weren’t enough. As years pass, there’s also a tender romance with a young man who accepts Kya as she is. I’d have thought all that sufficient and quite lovely, so I ask why we need the mystery. I will say that the murder investigation allows Owens to expound, sometimes cogently, on mating habits and the genetics of survival, linking her protagonist’s story to evolution, a clever conceit.

But much of the novel feels contrived. I never sense that Kya, who undergoes great hardship and takes brutal, yet often predictable, knocks, is ever really in danger. Terrible things happen, but just as the marsh protects her from outsiders who don’t know its waterways or approaches, the narrative cocoons her, in a way.

Start with how a child grows to her twenties in perfect health, without ever having seen a doctor or dentist. But if that sounds like nitpicking, consider the split time frame, which puts you in 1969 right away, undermining the tensions of 1952 and the immediate years afterward. Also, the kind strangers often appear at just the right moment, sometimes bearing a bounty too good to be true. After a while, I get the idea that whatever trouble comes her way, luck will favor her.

Further, Kya’s voice goes all over the map, which jars me and pulls me out of the story. Owens seems eager to get to the age where Kya speaks and thinks like an autodidact biologist offering thoughtful commentary about evolution (itself a stretch), rather than stay with the bewildered, frightened child who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, or how to prepare it. Since I want to hear the child and don’t always believe the self-trained scientist, the struggle between the voices is very distracting, especially when one intrudes on the other. The paragraph quoted above, about the heron, supplies an example; Kya wouldn’t know what “concentric circles” means, let alone “bridesmaid” or “lock-and-load.” So who’s watching the heron?

Finally, the year 1969 witnessed turmoil and great events, but I don’t recognize them here, or little about the Sixties, for that matter. The Vietnam War barely makes an appearance, and though Jim Crow seeps around the edges, it’s as if Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement had gone unheard of in South Carolina. Moon landing? Nary a mention, even among the inlanders.

Despite a terrific premise and beautiful prose, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that would have appealed to me more had the author crammed less in it.

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

No Quarter: Wolves of Eden

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Review: Wolves of Eden, by Kevin McCarthy
Norton, 2019. 350 pp. $26

It’s late 1866 at Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory, in the Black Hills. Custer’s Last Stand is still ten years in the future, but as this story begins, massacre is the order of the day. The Sioux and the U.S. Army show no quarter, and murder and mutilation — sometimes in reverse order — harden hearts.

Into this bloodbath come three soldiers from Nebraska, most particularly Captain Molloy and Corporal (later Sergeant) Daniel Kohn. Their orders: to investigate the killing of a sutler and his wife, who ran a brothel near the fort. With so much bloodshed going on, it’s a wonder the army would take the trouble to send a mission of inquiry, especially when nobody likes a sutler, a camp merchant who charges extortionate prices for necessaries and amusements alike. Moreover, most of the soldiers are native Irish, including many veterans of the barely concluded Civil War, and they distrust all officials, not least investigators.

Since Captain Molloy, native Irish himself, quickly winds up in the fort’s hospital with a broken leg, he leaves the sleuthing to Kohn. How he’ll fare, and what really happened to the sutler and his wife — as opposed to rumor or appearances — forms the plot.

Red Cloud, a gifted Lakota chief, in Charles Milton Bell’s 1880 photograph. In the late 1860s, he conducted a brilliant defense of Native American land in the Dakota Territory against great odds (courtesy South Dakota Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

However, the narrative begins with Michael O’Driscoll, one of two key suspects, writing down in his jail cell the truth as he witnessed it, for Captain Molloy’s eyes. Michael’s brother, Tom, is also implicated in the murder. So Wolves of Eden starts with a prologue and a trope, the manuscript that tells all. And this account is written by a man who’s got an eloquent pen and a superb eye for detail, even as he claims he’s hardly lettered.

Despite that, Wolves of Eden works as a tale of hard men in a kill-or-be-killed world. Sometimes you look around in vain for a character with whom to feel sympathy — reader, be advised — but the narrative feels splendidly authentic. I believe this is how the common soldier lived, thought, and fought, and though Michael comes to appreciate his adversaries’ bravery and tenacity, even to toy with the idea that their cause is just, he still hates them, in virulent terms.

There’s a lot of hatred in this novel, which can test a reader’s resolve. But McCarthy performs several valuable services. First and foremost, he exposes the U.S. government’s willingness to exterminate Native Americans for the benefit of gold prospectors or “settlers,” who have entered the territory illegally. Secondly, McCarthy portrays that hatred as the war’s driving force on the ground, and the fighting men feel lonely in their struggle, knowing that only the participants understand what’s going on, certainly not officials at their desks in Washington. Finally, the author gives voice to Irishmen who made up a substantial part of American armies during the 1860s. Throughout, the Civil War lurks in vivid memory, and Michael will never forget it:

It was the wager a boy made when he took on in Uncle Sam’s big show in the South seeking a new start in the world. Never mind the racking fear we felt or the night visions or nerves that snapped like bullwhips or jangled like jailer’s keys. Never mind hands that shook & would not stop shaking so that a tin mug of coffee was hard to sip without slopping down a poor boy’s tunic. Never mind all that because in truth no soldier in this world does ever think he will be one a bullet picks to visit.

Since he’s writing from the fort stockade, the story answers whether he’ll swing for the murders. McCarthy does well keeping the pages turning, though Wolves of Eden isn’t a mystery. He calls it a thriller, but I don’t see that; there are setbacks but few examples of “no — and furthermore,” and the prologue gives away too much, as they always do.

I believe the Irish characters implicitly and all the soldiers, except Daniel Kohn. He’s supposed to be Jewish, but since he has little inner life to speak of, he could be anybody, despite his ability to speak Yiddish and the constant insults he receives. He has only one redeeming trait, his devotion to his alcoholic captain, whose life he’s trying to save. Yet since he’s the driving force behind the investigation — which Molloy seems to wish to restrain —Daniel’s single-minded obduracy, which pays little attention to rules of evidence, tickles my cultural antennae. Is he meant to be a Judas, intent on betraying Christian men? Fie. Does he represent the canard about the harsh Jewish God compared to the forgiving, Christian one? Fie again.

I can’t pretend to know what the author intended. All I do know is that I’m put off from reading his other books.

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