Book Review: I Am No One by Patrick Flannery

I Am No One by Patrick Flannery

Jeremy O’Keefe is your average, everyday NYU history professor. Nothing special or remarkable to make him stick out from a crowd, except perhaps for a decade spent teaching overseas at Oxford University. Then, one day, he goes to a cafe to meet one of his graduate students and is stood up. Returning to his office, he finds he emailed said student earlier that day, asking for a postponement . . . but he has no memory of sending that email. Strange events continue to build: people who seem to be following him, or waiting outside his home and his office–staring in through the windows. The events culminate when he is sent a plain brown box, a box that contains a computer printout of every website he has ever visited in the past decade. The line between paranoia and true persecution continues to blur as Jeremy finds himself at the center of an incredibly large and complex, yet faceless surveillance. What could he possibly have done to make himself such a target?

Flannery has a very flowing, lyrical writing style. The book, written in the first person, flows and skips along in the vein of a free association memoir. Jeremy O’Keefe, who’s focus of study is surveillance within totalitarian states, is a man who seems to harbor more than the usual amount of baseline paranoia. As the events in the book continue to pile up upon his consciousness, that natural high functioning paranoia begins to change into something darker. Self doubt begins with worries of dementia, of fugue states, then transfers to the possibility of serious mental disorder, then finally to certainty, and the corresponding uncertainty of who to trust.

The beginning of the book was incredibly interesting. Flannery does a great job in his creation of Jeremy O’Keefe; the character is complex, multidimensional, and very relatable. The uncertainty whether Jeremy’s paranoia is justified and to what extent, combined with the slow unraveling of the events of his life over the past decade, form an intriguing little mystery as the reliability of our narrator is called into question. Unfortunately, the tension that underscores the first part of the book is not maintained, leaving the ending flat, anticlimactic, and unsatisfying. As the final parts of the book see the puzzle pieces fall into place, the revelation of the truth should be disturbing and electrifying. Unfortunately, the knowledge of the truth pales in comparison to the anxiety of not knowing, and the reader can’t help but feel a bit let down and cheated by how something potentially earth-shattering can feel so banal.

Those who are heavily into psychological thrillers may still want to check out this book for the interesting beginning and the fine characterization of the protagonist. But I feel that most readers will be left frustrated by the lackluster ending.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher 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: Murder by Candlelight by Michael Knox Beran

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Murder by Candlelight: The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre by Michael Knox Beran

Murder by Candlelight explores in depth several notorious murders from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the effect of these murders on both the general populace, and on some of the brightest writers of the age. Set in chronological order, Beran explores the murder of William Weare by Jack Thurtell; a series of dismembered corpses  around London, focusing on the murder of Hannah Brown; the sensational death of Lord William Russell in his own bedchamber; and (of course) Jack the Ripper. Each of these crimes are gone over in historical detail, with literary gems sprinkled throughout.

The tone of the book is quite flowery, and largely mimics the style of the writers on display within. While the artistry of the prose isn’t in question, the overly wrought sentences may deter a more casual reader. Those interested in a more accessible book on the same topic might want to check out  The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders.

In all, the book has some interesting points, but does not seem to be aimed at the casual nonfiction or history reader. Beran’s knowledge of history and literature is phenomenal, but the accounts of the murders lack the suspense and sensationalism hey surely engendered in their day. At the end, this is an academic book for more academically-minded people. If that describes you, then there is a lot of very interesting information to be found here.

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: The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

Jude Brighton is missing, and only his ten-year-old cousin, Stevie, seems concerned. Most of the town regards Jude as merely trouble, and write him off as a likely runaway. But Jude isn’t the first disappearance from the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon. Pets have long gone missing from backyards, and years ago another young boy went missing, found weeks later torn to pieces . . . The adults in town seem determined to avoid thinking about these mysteries, and it seems that Stevie may have to take matters into his own hands.

It has been a while since I’ve read a true horror novel, and I came away from The Devil Crept In with a renewed love of the genre. Ahlborn has an excellent sense of suspense, and fills the narrative with enough background menace to keep the reader on edge throughout the book.

In addition, Stevie, our narrator, seems to be suffering from some schizophreniform disorder, adding a delicious uncertainty to everything about the book. Stevie is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and we can never be sure if the things that happen are real, or a product of his mental illness.

Ahlborn is a rare female voice in a genre nearly completely dominated by men. Fans of Stephen King, Nick Cutter, Joe Hill and other giants of the genre would do well to read her work. Ahlborn is clearly able to set her own bloody stake near the top of the hill of horror writers.

Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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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: I am Providence by Nick Mamatas

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Colleen Danzig is an aspiring writer of Lovecraftian fiction. While attending the biggest gathering for Lovecraftian literary types: The Summer Tentacular in Providence, Rhode Island, she finds the hardcore fans more than a little off-putting. When her roommate–a widely admired and equally despised writer named Panossian–is murdered and his face surgically removed, Colleen finds that she is the only one who seems to care about Panossian’s death. Deciding to start her own investigation, she delves into the underbelly of the Lovecraftian fandom, a place where racism and sexism merge with mystical thinking, and more than one convention goer seems to be searching for a book bound in human skin . . .

This is a meta-fiction, a Lovecraft book about Lovecraft folks. There are no cosmic horrors here, though, just the banal horror of truly terrible people. I do like the split narrative between the well-meaning and frustrated Colleen and the dead, decomposing, but still conscious Panossian, which did give the book a touch of Lovecraftian horror. the tone of the book is bitter and snarky, focusing on the trouble that arises when you have too many socially-backward folks in one place. Despite the occasionally sour-grapes-esque tone, Mamatas does bring forward some legitimate problems both with Lovecraft himself and with a subset of his fans (see previous: racism, sexism, etc.).

The plot of the book stumbles at times, switching viewpoints or segueing with little warning. In addition, the various secondary characters tend to be a bit one dimensional, which occasionally makes it difficult to keep these players straight.

The book is quite funny at times, but I would recommend it more for the serious Lovecraft fan, and not a casual reader.

Book Review: Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Change Agent by Daniel Suarez 

Roughly thirty years into the future, America’s anti-science stance has led to the rise of a new first world.  Singapore is the new technological and medical center of the world. With brave new frontiers in biomedical science opened up, the genetic modification of human embryos is becoming commonplace. With this breakthrough, a black market develops, promising genetic modification beyond the legal; for parents who can pay.

Kenneth Durand leads an Interpol team dedicated to stopping these black market geneticists. On the hunt for the kingpin behind these crimes, Durand becomes the hunted. Injected with a radical new genetic treatment, he awakens from a coma to find himself wearing his enemy’s face. On the run from his own task force, Durand must figure out how to change himself back, and stop this master criminal once and for all.

This was a fun technological and medical thriller. I could see Michael Crichton writing something similar were he alive today. The science, while fictional, is based on current technologies. It is more than plausible that many of these technological advances  (and their requisite benefits and drawbacks) will begin to emerge within the next few decades. This gives the book, for all its crazy scifi-ness, a grounding in reality.

Lovers of realistic science fiction or technological thrillers will enjoy this book. Any one who is a fan of Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, or even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child will likely find a lot to love here.

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

Book Review: Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice and the Assassin by R.J. Koreto

Alice Roosevelt was the daughter of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Born into the heights of New York Society, and thrust further into the spotlight as a member of the first family, Alice was a determined rebel in an age where proper behavior was paramount for well heeled women. Fiercely intelligent and chafing at the limitations placed upon her by society, Alice drank, smoked, and drove in cars with men. She imposed herself on her father’s policy meetings, offering political advice and helping in diplomatic meetings. Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”

R.J. Koreto brings this remarkable woman to life in the historical mystery Alice and the Assassin. Koreto is an old hand at historical mysteries, his Lady Frances Ffolkes series features another strong (and fictional) heroine, and is quite a fun read (you can read my review of Death Among Rubies here).

This book, hopefully the first of several, features seventeen-year-old Alice and her Secret Service bodyguard, Joseph St. Clair. The year is 1902, and Theodore Roosevelt has recently ascended to the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz. Alice, wishing to satisfy her own curiosity about the incident, decides to seek out famous anarchist, and associate of Czolgosz, Emma Goldman. However, this meeting seems to disturb powerful factions within the local community, and soon Alice and St. Clair find themselves embroiled in a wide-reaching conspiracy which may threaten another president.

I am a fan of Koreto’s previous work and this book did not disappoint. Alice is well realized, both as a vulgarity-slinging iconoclast and a sheltered seventeen year old who wants to protect her family. Historical details are sprinkled throughout with satisfying accuracy, and those aspects which are fictionalized for the plot roll nicely into the feel of the era.

The book begins with some stutters as the author introduces us to the protagonists and the world they inherit, but rapidly finds its footing. The pacing is splendid, with enough narrative false trails and red herrings to make for an enjoyable mystery. The plot, while fictional, is based on real events, and the final solution to the plot feels a bit too possible for comfort.

In all, fans of historical mysteries will enjoy this book. I would recommend Alice and the Assassin to fans of Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery Series, Deanna Raybourn‘s books,  or the Maisie Dobbs series. Anyone looking for an engaging book featuring a strong female protagonist will also enjoy this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.