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Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Nina de Gramont, THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR


Set in 1925, the novel is told mostly in first person by Miss Nan O'Dea, mistress to Agatha Christie's husband Archie. Nan's voice just sings, for it is intense without being overwrought (as, alas, some historical novels are), delicate and blunt by turns, and profoundly truthful. Nan's account is spliced with chapters in third person, focalized through Agatha, whose 11-day vanishing act after her husband declares he is leaving her is the impetus for the book. We come to sympathize deeply with both women. Immersive and beautifully written, with sentences that verge on poetry. Highly recommend.


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Charles Finch, AN EXTRAVAGANT DEATH


As always with Finch’s Victorian mysteries, this is an engaging and entertaining read, with the charming, urbane detective Charles Lenox, now middle-aged and married to Lady Jane and with two children, and with a narrator who delivers wry observations that make me chuckle inwardly as I read.


The book begins in London 1878 (a period I know and love). In the aftermath of a fictionalized version of the (true) corruption scandal that shook up Scotland Yard, Lenox’s potential presence at the trial is awkward, and PM Disraeli sends him off to America on a diplomatic mission. However, once in America, Lenox is waylaid by a case of murder, which takes him to Newport, where a young woman’s corpse has been found on the beach below the famous Cliff Walk. For those who are watching Julian Fellowes’s THE GILDED AGE, you will find some of the characters here, most notably Mrs. Astor who throws the ball that occurs toward the end of this book. 


One thing I love about the book is that Finch knows the period so well that the details that immerse us in this other world are feathered in organically, and I always learn something new. For example, the word “backlog” comes from the “back log” in a fireplace. Shrapnel—gunshot loaded inside hollow cannonballs—was created in 1784 by a lieutenant named Henry Shrapnel. There was a tavern in Greenwich Village where officers used to meet during the Civil War, with spies, “called the Old Grapevine” (hence the phrase, heard it through the grapevine). I always enjoy those tidbits, like a raisin in a scone. 


I also love the nimble, allusive language that captures nuances and small moments. Quoted passages are never as good out of context – but here are a few, just to give those readers unacquainted with Finch a sense for his prose. As the third one suggests, Finch has some of Austen’s tendency toward humorous understatement and shrewd observation of character.


“For the next two days London was layered in a fog so dense that according to the papers now fewer than eight men fell into the river from the West India Docks. All of them had been fished out quickly, fortunately, and none worse off than a glass of rum would cure, but as the papers said—still! A pretty pass things had come to, when men and women couldn’t walk the streets of the capital without the prospect of barging straight into a lamppost.” 


Regarding Delmonico’s in NYC: “Lenox might have queried the wisdom of police commissioners meeting in the same place as the criminals—but it fit in with New York, where everything seemed to happen inches from everything else.” 


“Most single young gentlemen of large fortune he had known were drunk with their own high valuation of themselves, knowing it was held by others too; few Mr. Bingleys to be found anywhere, at any time.” 


“… the article’s writer … was identified as J. Gossip Gadabout, a name which Lenox, with his years of practice in detection, strongly suspected of being a pseudonym.”


If you haven’t read the previous novels in the series, you can begin here; it works as a standalone. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Charlotte McConaghy, MIGRATIONS


This is a powerful, beautifully written novel set in the near(ish) future when climate change has drastically affected the earth and rendered most species extinct. Franny Stone, the protagonist and an avid studier of birds, convinces the captain of a fishing boat to take her along on his journey south, claiming that her tagged birds will lead them to the ever-diminishing "big catch" of fish. In fresh, poetic language, Franny describes their journey as well as her past. She explains she grew up in "a wooden house so close to the sea I was able to tune my swift child's pulse to the shh shh of the neap and spring tides." Lovely descriptions are sprinkled on nearly every page: "the cold is familiar and savage," "the keening of the wind," "[we] watch dark stain the sky."

Some readers had difficulty with how much this book jumped around from present to various pasts, but that didn't bother me so much. The author wrote in a way that made me trust that they would all fold together by the end.

But [*spoilers ahead*] I found myself a bit overwhelmed by all the grief and past trauma. I know it's what people write now ... it has become de rigueur for everyone from writers of literary fiction to Ted Lasso to uncover a backstory element such as an abusive father or a lost mother or a near death experience in their childhood. I find myself growing restless in the face of it, especially when it isn't necessary to generate narrative power. In this book, Franny experiences at least 8 different serious traumas [*spoiler alert*] that we find out belatedly, as they take place before the timeframe of the story: childhood poverty and deprivation, a feeling of not belonging, a mother who abandons her, a father in jail, the death of her child, the death of her beloved husband, the death of two other people, and jail time and the violence that entails.

Early on she explains, "one way or another, when I reach Antarctica and my migration is finished, I have decided to die" and though it feels a bit melodramatic on page 27, by the end of the book I feel like her redemption and the happyish ending almost seems as unlikely as all the trauma that caused her original suicidal wish.

This isn't to say that horrifying things don't happen to people, and sometimes they happen in multiples. I wrote my PhD diss on Victorian railway disasters because I was interested in how the experiential category of "trauma" (and PTSD) evolved out of early medical and legal discourse used to address the bizarre and often belated injuries suffered by train wreck victims. The subject fascinates me, and I think we need to continue to examine trauma and its aftereffects on the psyche and the body (as well as to resist the tendency to think of every grief as traumatic; the term loses its usefulness). I just felt like I was getting a bit hammered by it in this novel. Other people will feel differently, I'm sure. This said, I would definitely recommend this book. There's so much good here -- it's eloquent and poetic, a book that made me think about our fragile world, and a page-turner all at once.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Ariel Lawhon, CODE NAME HELENE

 4.5.


I have to confess, I have felt a bit burned out on WWII books, with many books in recent years featuring women as spies, coders, secretaries, land girls, resistance fighters, parachuters, etc. But I appreciated this one. Like THE WOLVES AT THE DOOR, by Judith L. Pearson, about the (historical, real-life) American spy Virginia Hall, this book, based upon the Australian Nancy Wake, a newspaper free-lance writer turned resistance leader, has the feel of the real.

The book is well-written, well-researched, and engaging, and my gripes are small: at times, I found the language a bit fraught, loading up the emotions somewhat improbably and with references that feel somewhat forced. (From page 87: Frank opens his mouth and I know where he's going so I stick my finger right in his face. "Don't you dare say, 'But what about George Eliot?' Don't you dare! Mary Ann Evans made her choice and so did I!'") I wasn't sure what the narrative gained by the chapter-by-chapter shifting among years, from 1944 to 1936 to 1939. I also didn't understand why sections from Nancy's husband Henri are dropped in (with a rag-right margin instead of justified), as I felt they didn't add materially to the story. Still, it's an engrossing page-turner, and I recommend it.

Opening lines: "I have gone by many names. Some of them are real--I was given four at birth alone--but most are carefully constructed personas to get me through checkpoints and across borders. They are lies scribbled on forged travel documents. Typed neatly in government files. Splashed across wanted posters. My identity is an ever-shifting thing that adapts to the need at hand."

Monday, December 27, 2021

Charles Finch, WHAT JUST HAPPENED: NOTES ON A LONG YEAR

 


BOOK REVIEW ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I had the pleasure of meeting the mystery writer Charles Finch once, when the Poisoned Pen bookstore owner invited me (as another author who writes mysteries about Victorian London) to help interview him. That evening, Finch struck me as gracious, well-read, and comfortable in his own skin. He was on a book tour for The Last Passenger, one of the Charles Lenox mysteries, and I read some of my favorite passages from it aloud to the audience because they were wonderfully, wryly funny -- a tricky thing in murder mysteries. Pulling it off requires that a writer be keenly attuned to both emotions and language.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finch has written a memoir that is discursive, literary, allusive, and above all humane. His dated entries beginning on March 11, 2020 follow the linear historical trajectory of events including Covid, the presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter movement, but the entries aren't homogenized into a tidy whole. To me, they feel reassuringly raw and emotionally uneven--reassuring because this is exactly the way that I experienced the past 18 months, with that messy mixture of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and some hope and a load of anxiety thrown in. If this sounds like Elisabeth Kubler Ross's 5 stages of grief, that's because ... well, it's been a long, painful year.

Some of the reviews on goodreads have criticized Finch for his liberal views, which are earnest and heartfelt and may strike some people as strident. I'll admit, I don't wholly agree with some of the solutions he sketches, as he's addressing some complex problems, but I also felt that what he was capturing (successfully) was the impatience, the desperate longing for things to change *soon* that many of us feel.

As for the writing itself, his feelings and thoughts, his memories and experiences are limned in prose that makes me a tad jealous at his turn of phrase. (The passages about his grandmother are especially tender.) It's the sort of book that makes me want to be a better writer, to be more precise with my own language, not to be lazy, but to find just the right metaphor to reflect human experience in a fresh, true way. He references cultural icons and books (so many books! I found myself thinking, How does he have time to do anything other than read?!) from Aslan to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I came away feeling as though I'd spent several hours with a lively intellect, someone honest, someone I'd like for a friend -- and having been reminded that shared stories and books are some of the nodes around which we can gather, to undo that feeling of isolation and get through this together.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Edwin Hill, THE SECRETS WE SHARE

I've enjoyed Hill's previous books, but this is hands down my favorite. It's a twisty tale -- and the narrative power comes not so much from the unexpected reveals and startling violence but from a rich backstory of pain and trauma, secrets and misunderstandings. As a result, the emotional lives of the characters feel complex enough to justify the longings they feel, the motives that compel them, and the risks they take. As with Tana French's debut, IN THE WOODS, the characters at the center of this story are now grown but had an experience as children that shaped their lives in profound and troubling ways. The two sisters, Natalie and Glenn, have coped with tragedy differently, but Natalie's tendency toward depression and Glenn's almost frantic self-promotion are flip sides of the same coin. Psychologically coherent and intense, this novel is a great read for mystery fans. 

This book will be available in March or April 2022.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Emily Arsenault, THE LAST THING I TOLD YOU


I'll be honest -- I don't tend to gravitate toward thrillers, and I probably wouldn't have picked up this book except that I met the writer at a conference and thought, She's smart and insightful; I bet she's written a good book. And in my opinion, it *is* good, but (reviews including the one by the wonderful Hallie Ephron notwithstanding) I wouldn't categorize this novel as a "thriller." That label sets up expectations of a racing pace that this book doesn't really meet. However, the novel does succeed in excavating a young woman's traumatic childhood, exploring a teenage girl's emotional muddle surrounding a drastic and violent act, and portraying the ensuing multi-layered therapy relationship as well as allowing the reader the vicarious pleasure of solving the murder mystery along with a likable, humane detective. Indeed, in alternating between two narrators--Henry, the detective investigating the therapist Mark Fabian's murder, and Nadine, the traumatized woman who was once Mark Fabian's patient--the book in some ways reproduces the structure of therapy and suggests that in both therapy and detective work, the process toward resolution is the same: assembling a linear and plausible narrative out of scraps.


One of the issues I have with many books that depict therapy is they tend to follow a rather idealized trajectory -- such as in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams plays the engaging and wise therapist and Matt Damon plays the young man who reaches the necessary epiphany as a result of their time together, and then drives off into the sunset to find the girl. I'm not griping about Good Will Hunting, which is heartwarming and enjoyable. But Arsenault's book offers something more nuanced: it examines a therapy relationship that feels genuine and authentic, between an imperfect therapist (with emotional fatigue and memory issues) and a patient who does not transcend her demons by the end of their sessions.

For me, Arsenault's strength is her ability to portray the inner workings of Nadine's mind. It's never quite fair to take a passage out of context (it often doesn't "show" well), but I'm going to include one here, just to demonstrate what I mean. This is Nadine: "As a good and proper therapy patient, one tries, most of the time, not to go to these places in one's head. But you do. Your brain wants to do it, just because it knows it's not supposed to. Like when you're in Sunday school class as a kid, and the old lady teaching the class says that God sees and knows everything, even what's in your head, and then your head just keeps thinking I hate Jesus, I hate Jesus, I HATE JESUS! Not because you really hate Jesus (because what is there to hate about long hair and love and crucifixion?) but because God is listening and your brain just wants to screw you over for some reason that you will never--even decades later--ever understand."

There is a raw humanity and a psychological complexity to both Henry (who has his own baggage) and Nadine that I appreciated. For that reason alone, I found myself wanting to see how it all turned out. I'll definitely look for more by this author.