Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy.jpg

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker


Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker

You might know this by now, but I’m a huge Jane Eyre fan. I will devour everything and anything related to the book. So when I saw that a book from Mr. Rochester’s point of view was coming out, I jumped on the opportunity like one of my dogs on an errant piece of cheese.

Mr. Rochester did not disappoint. The story begins with young Edward Fairfax Rochester as an unloved second son, torn from Thornfield Hall by an indifferent father to begin his education. The book follows Mr. Rochester though his teen years (banished from his father and older brother to a mill to learn to run a business), through his days in Jamaica (where he meets the mysterious and beautiful Bertha Mason), to his dissipation on the continent (where we meet the opera singer, Celine), and finally, to his fateful journey back to Thornfield where he meets a kind young governess after his horse slips on the ice.

Shoemaker has done a great job of adhering to the tone of the original book; the prose mimics Bronte’s style incredibly well. Shoemaker also manages to bring a fresh feeling to the classic book, while at the same time staying true to the original, no mean feat. In this regard, the book reminds me of Phantom by Susan Kay, another novel which expanded on a well-known story, but remained undiminished even next to the original.

While you do not technically have to read Jane Eyre before reading Mr. Rochester, I would certainly recommend that you read Jane Eyre first. Fans of Jane Eyre should definitely read this book, as should anyone with a love of classic and/or British literature.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

I remember reading about the radium girls as a side bar in The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. The story was fascinating enough as a side bar, but in The Radium Girls, Moore brings these women to life. These girls, some as young as thirteen or fourteen years old, worked painting watch dials with luminescent radium paint. The work was considered to be quite a few steps above common factory work; the work was skilled and the girls were considered lucky to be able to work with the new miracle substance: radium. With our current knowledge, what happened next should surprise no one. The girls began to get sick, many horrifically so. Their battle for compensation from the radium companies would reshape the nature of worker’s rights in the United States.

The Radium Girls is thoroughly researched and impeccably written. The depth of Moore’s work is nothing short of breathtaking. She uses primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the girls themselves, and the reminisces of their families, to give each one a unique, real voice. Moore takes the story from the original girls hired in the manufacturing boom brought on by World War One, through the following decades into the present day. Though it has been one hundred years since radium dials exploded as a wartime necessity, the ripple effect of the fates of the dial painters is still very much felt today.

Moore has done an amazing job with this story. Her careful attention to detail makes these women, who lived and died so long ago, seem real and alive in the pages of the book. Her narrative is both educational and absorbing, making this a great nonficton read even for those who normally avoid the genre. Any fan of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot should read this next.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown


The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

This historical fiction follows the career of self-styled (and real life) Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, as told by his sister, Alice. In the 1640s, during the English Civil War between the Catholics and Protestants, Hopkins gained infamy for his dogged pursuit of witches in the Southeast of England. It is estimated that anywhere from 100 to 300 women perished due to his work. Like the witch hysteria of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Hopkins focused his attentions on independent, outspoken, and/or unpopular women. And, the times being what they were, a good deal of anti-catholic hatred also informed his persecutions.

This book is told from the point of view of Matthew Hopkins’ older sister, Alice, recently widowed and returned to her hometown. Through guile and intimidation, Matthew enlists Alice to help him in ferreting out witches, which she does with increasing reluctance. As Matthew’s obsession grows in intensity, so does the menace Alice can sense underneath his brotherly affection.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a carefully researched and intricately detailed historical fiction. Underdown does a great job conveying the sense of claustrophobia and dread that haunts the main protagonist. There are no (real) witches or demons here; the horrible things humans are capable of inflicting upon one another more than serve to provide horror.

I will say, however, that as a protagonist, Alice Hopkins does feel a little bit flat. She seems to have no agency or larger sense of herself beyond what others want of her. Rather that being an active part of the story, she seems to simply drift from plot point to plot point. While this may be intentional on the part of the author (a more spirited woman would likely have fought more), it does make her a bit dull and frustrating as a narrator. By contrast, Underdown did a wonderful job with Matthew Hopkins, he is terrifying and broken, a source of horror and begrudging pity.

Fans of darker historical fiction, or those interested in the histories of witchcraft hysteria will likely enjoy this book. Underdown does a fantastic job of bringing England in the 1640s to life, and her sense of pacing palpably increases the reader’s sense of dread as the narrative unfolds.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King
I’m really on an Ancient Rome kick. After reading Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George, I went looking for something juicy to follow up. I was not disappointed by Crystal King’s debut historical fiction.

The story follows the slave Thrasius, bought by the disgustingly rich Roman aristocrat Apicius to run his kitchen. Apicius is an already famous gourmand, and he wants to climb to the top of Roman culinary society by becoming an advisor to the Roman Emperor. Willing to go to any expense and any excess to achieve his goal, the book follows Thrasius and Apicius across a sweep of decades.

King has done a masterful job in her debut work. As with any book about Ancient Rome, the drama is high and the casual violence and cruelty is breathtaking.  The world occupied by Thrasius and Apicus is vividly wrought, with a great deal of attention paid to historical accuracy. While Thrasius and his fellow slaves are fictional (identities of Roman slaves are understandably shrouded in the historical record), Apicius and his family (and other high-born Romans in this book) were all real people. Apicius himself is credited with the creation of a series of cookbooks, some of which still survive today.

King carefully crafts her major characters, giving them a multifaceted existence which lends complexity and humanity to the story. King also does a wonderful job weaving a number of disparate historical threads together into a coherent story. The span of decades allows the reader to watch as the characters grow and develop.

Any fan of historical fiction will enjoy this book. King has a wonderful (and rare) talent for blending the historical and fictional aspects of the book together, providing needed background without sacrificing pace. This is a fine drama, and should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon.jpg

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

In the early 1920s, members of the Osage tribe, made wealthy through oil reserves underneath their reservation, began to die. Some were shot, either in robberies or apparent suicides. Others were poisoned, tainted whiskey being a favorite vehicle. More than one tribal member simply “wasted away,” their deaths attributed to an unknown illness. One woman, Maggie Burkhart, watched as her sisters, mother, and even her daughter died, leaving her in sole possession of a significant fortune. it was almost inevitable that Maggie would begin to fall ill as well . . .

In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover is under a tremendous amount of pressure to prove the worth of his new Investigative Bureau. With local and state authorities unable or unwilling to investigate the Osage deaths, Hoover sends agents to start what would turn into a multi-year investigation, and would set Oklahoman society on edge.

This non-fiction book is written as a murder mystery in three parts. The first part introduces us to the major players, using primary sources from Maggie Burkhart, her family, and other Osage tribe members of the time. The second part is concerned with the FBI’s investigation and is drawn primarily from the memoirs of Agent Tom White, J. Edgar Hoover, and other investigators. The third portion of the book deals with the author’s own investigation into the murders.

The book itself is engagingly written, and the subject matter has been largely forgotten by history. The subject matter itself is compelling and infuriating; the pervasive and institutionalized racism that allowed these crimes to hide amid a thousand lesser forms of violence is nothing short of appalling. The Osage in the 1920s, while millionaires on paper, were treated more like indentured servants. The government would not allow the Osage to manage their own money, each was assigned to a white “guardian” who held complete control of their finances. The abuses such a system would invite are easy to imagine. In addition, the lack of investigation (for years), suggests a breathtaking lack of concern in the swath of deaths; so long as those dying were not white. Indeed, many at the time seemed to think that the “uppity Indians” had brought such violence upon themselves, solely by being richer than their white neighbors.

This is a fantastic example of narrative nonfiction. Grann has created an incredible narrative from this story. The horror the Osage lived with in the first decades of the twentieth century has been lost to history until now, but it is a story that needs to be told. Fans of Erik Larsen will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

skeleton-god

Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

This is the ninth book in Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series. Therefore, there will probably be spoilers for the previous books in this review. Caveat: I haven’t read the previous book in the series, but the good news is that this book can be read as a stand-alone, without having read the previous novels.

________________________________________

We find our hero, Shan Tao Yun, reluctantly acting as the constable of tiny Yangkar village in Tibet. His appointment more a punishment than an honor, Shan does his best to toe the party line while remaining sympathetic to the native Tibetans under his jurisdiction. When a military convoy stops in town with a dozen political prisoners and an investigator from the Public Security Bureau in tow, Shan braces himself for trouble. Unfortunately, he has no idea just how bad things can get. When an elderly nun is assaulted and local herders begin talking of “the dead walking” Shan heads into the mountainous terrain to investigate and finds something that defies explanation: an ancient tomb with not one, but three bodies inside – the mummified body of a Tibetan saint, the fifty-year-old corpse of a Chinese soldier, and the days old body of an American. With the Public Security Bureau and the army both digging into the town’s affairs, the situation becomes extremely complicated. Shan must find a way to solve the crimes without getting thrown back in prison or being executed.

This was certainly an interesting mystery. Pattison, while an American author, is a world traveler, and has infused the book with his love of Tibet and his knowledge of the conquest of that country by the People’s Republic of China. The intricacies (and atrocities) of politics between Tibet and China are on full display and impact most every aspect of the plot. Inspector Shan is a wonderful protagonist, vividly realized as a man trying his best to walk the tightrope between two very different worlds. The paranoia and precariousness of his situation are palpable throughout the book.

As I said before, this book works well as a stand-alone novel, but I would imagine you get a bit more out of it if you’ve read the previous books. Fans of the series will likely enjoy this book. I would also recommend it to mystery lovers and those into international intrigue.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Skeleton God will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

wages-of-sin

The Wages of Sin by Katie Welsh

In 1892, the University of Edinburgh began to admit female medical students. The pushback from both faculty and the male student body was immense. Indeed, society itself looked down on these women as unfeminine and broken. Enter Sarah Gilchrist, banished from London after bringing scandal to her family name. Cut adrift and dependent on the good graces of Scottish relatives, Sarah is determined to make her own way as a female physician. In order to get practical training, Sarah volunteers at a charity infirmary in the slums. The work is hard, and the prejudices of society are increasingly difficult to bear. However, Sarah is doing well with her studies and her work until one day she recognizes the corpse in her anatomy class as her patients at the infirmary. . .

I always like a good historical fiction, and this one did not disappoint. Welsh does a great job of demonstrating the fine line these medical pioneers would have to walk between Victorian propriety and their dreams of higher education. The hypocrisy of their male counterparts is also brilliantly illustrated. Welsh also does well with her main protagonist, Sarah Gilchrist. The lasting physical and mental trauma from her “scandal” feels very real. While you may occasionally want to reach through the page, shake her, and yell “think before you speak,” she is overall a very sympathetic character. The mystery aspect of the book was well paced, with the requisite red herrings and plot twists.

Fans of historical murder mysteries will find a lot to like in this book, which feels like the first of a series. Historical fiction or murder mystery fans in general will likely also enjoy the book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Wages of Sin will be available for purchase on March 14th, 2017.

Book Review: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

ill-will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Thirty years ago, Dustin’s aunt, uncle, mother, and father were brutally murdered. His testimony helped to put his adopted older brother, Rusty, in prison for the crime. Now, Rusty is being released from prison, his innocence proven by DNA evidence. But if Rusty didn’t commit the murders, then who did?

In the meantime, it appears that a serial killer might be operating in northern Ohio. Dustin, now a psychologist in Cleveland, becomes obsessed with a series of suspicious deaths after one of his patients brings up his own investigation. As Dustin and his family are pulled apart by both the events of thirty years ago and today, the nature of right and wrong, sanity and insanity becomes more and more muddled.

This was a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to read. The story, which weaves between past events and the present day, is mainly from the point of view of Dustin himself, and his adult son, Aaron. The story begins with Dustin learning of Rusty’s release from prison. This knowledge, and the anticipation of retribution from his adopted brother, start off a chain of events leading Dustin down a rabbit hole of obsession. Aaron, dealing with drug addiction, is nearly as unreliable a narrator as Dustin.

As the two men move through the story, the narrative literally fragments, some pages having several competing point-of-views for the same people of the same event. Thoughts and sentences are often left unfinished, as minds drift and alternative thoughts impose themselves upon the narrative. Ill Will explores the fragility of self and the unreliability of perception and memory.

I enjoyed this book. It is a uniquely written thriller, and the plot twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough to confound the reader. In places, the formatting, especially with the competing narratives, can make the book hard to follow. To me, the book is reminiscent of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, a psychological thriller which also used atypical formatting to advance the plot. And, like House of Leaves, I strongly suspect that this is a book you will either love or hate.

I would recommend this book to someone who likes darker psychological thrillers, but not to anyone who requires concrete endings or neatly tied loose ends. In that regard, Ill Will is a lot like the recently published Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (my review can be read here) in that it is a creepy book which will mess with your head, and the ending will leave you with nearly as many questions as answers. In sum, I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it is certainly not for everyone. If you enjoyed either of the two books previously mentioned, then I strongly recommend reading Ill Will.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Ill Will will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone Witch.jpg

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Tea has lived all her life in a small village with her family. Then, when she is thirteen, her brother, who had been called to the army to help protect the kingdom from fierce monsters called daeva, is killed in battle. The anguished Tea refuses to accept his death, and in her grief, she raises him from his grave. It seems that Tea is a necromancer, a dark asha (witch). Fleeing from the superstition and fear of her neighbors, she journeys to the schools at Ankyo where she can learn to harness her powers.

The lessons at these schools (called The Willows) resemble a geisha’s training more than anything you’d find at Hogwarts. Tea learns singing, dance, flower arranging, and how to pick out the perfect hua (magical outfit). She does also learn healing and combat, but the focus is certainly more on the refined arts and entertaining dignitaries.

When the school is attacked by a fierce daeva, Tea knows she is the only one with a chance of stopping the carnage, but the price that must be paid could mean the sacrifice of all she holds dear.

Right off the bat I’m going to stay that this book wasn’t my cup of tea (pun, sorry). I found the focus on the more mundane aspects  (like flower arranging, etc.) to be a bit dull. When the action finally hits, the book is nearly over. That is not to say that this book is bad. There’s quite a bit of good world building here, and the magic system is actually pretty neat, and interestingly done. I feel like this book will appeal more to a true YA audience than me (being old and curmudgeonly). As this is the first in the series, I would be curious to see how the future books pace out. I think the second book will be worth a chance, when it comes out.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The Bone Witch will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.