Book Review: The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

“Heroic medicine” is well named. Prior to the advent of anesthetics, patients were awake and aware for surgical procedures. The pain and horror of feeling a surgeon cutting into your body is something we now associate with a nightmare. Going through asurgery was nearly as likely to kill you as not receiving treatment at all. With the discovery of ether, surgeons no longer had to restrict their operations to procedures which could be completed in minutes. With the field of surgery becoming ever more ambitious, post-surgical infections became the chief danger to patients. In a time before germ theory was accepted, opinions and practices used to treat or prevent infections (laudable pus, anyone?) varied widely, and with little success. In the 1860s, Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister set about trying to determine scientifically the causes of post-surgical infections, and how to best prevent these deadly conditions.

Lindsey Fitzharris gives us a great view of Victorian medical practice, and of the scientific and medical theories and traditions that made the prevention of nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections so difficult. The Butchering Art is both a history and a biography. The book earns a place next to The Knife Man by Wendy Moore (about contemporaneous surgeon John Hunter) and The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (about Dr. John Snow, who helped trace a cholera outbreak in London to a single water pump).

Any history buff interested in the history of medicine will enjoy this book. More casual readers will likely also find this book to be entertaining and accessible. Beware though, Fitzharris provides several very accurate and vivid descriptions of Victorian-era surgeries, so the book is decidedly not for the faint of heart.

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

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Book Review: The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

The House at Bishopsgate by Katie Hickman

This is the third book in The Aviary Gate series, so there’s going to be spoilers in here for the first two books in the series.

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Merchant Paul Pindar and his wife, Celia (recently rescued from slavery in a Turkish harem) are moving back to England from Aleppo. Thrust suddenly into English high society (foaming at the mouth due to rumors of Celia’s past and a huge fortune in gemstones owned by Paul), Celia finds old traumas and anxieties reemerging, and finds herself relying on the widowed Lady Frances Sydenham to help her manage the household and reintegrate into society. As the woman becomes more and more indispensable to the household, her power over both Celia and Paul grows. What game is she playing, and what are her plans for the household and its inhabitants?

I was unaware when I started this book that there were others in the series, and let me tell you now, this is not a book you can really read on it’s own merits. There is a lot of backstory here, and as you read further and further you become aware that you have missed out on more and more.

Hickman does a great job with period detail, working in the tiny things that make a scene complete. Her descriptions of 17th century Aleppo and England, and the people who inhabit them, are well crafted and historically accurate. The story builds off of several threads, which weave together into a slow burning suspense.

So, if you’ve read the previous two books and enjoyed them, then The House at Bishopsgate is for you. If you’ve not yet started the series, then you should really go back and start from the beginning on order to get the full experience of this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas


A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

This is the second Lady Sherlock book by Sherry Thomas. You should naturally expect spoilers for the first book, A Study in Scarlet Women in this review. If you haven’t yet read the first book, stop what you’re doing and read it now. I’ll wait.

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first book featuring Charlotte Holmes. Rather than the trite gender-swapped rehashing of the well-trod Sherlock Holmes stories, I found a smart, witty, and wonderfully realized mystery featuring not Sherlock Holmes, but a woman whose brilliant deductive mind is trapped in the body of a Victorian society lady,mwith all the attendant limitations and societal entrapment.

The second book in the series does not disappoint. Taking place shortly after the first book leaves off, we find Charlotte settling into the life of a social pariah, and enjoying the freedom that comes with being “Sherlock Holmes.” Things go a bit sideways when she is approached by the wife of Lord Ingram, her childhood friend, who is trying to track down her first love. Beyond the obvious conflicts of investigating the case without the knowledge of Lord Ingram, the further Charlotte digs into the identity and history of Lady Ingram’s former paramour, the more strangely complicated matters become. Soon Charlotte finds herself embroiled in hidden ciphers, codes within codes, blackmail plots, poisoning, and espionage. Weaving these disparate threads into a resolution will tax even her brilliant mind.

Charlotte Holmes is simply a great character. She is by no means a female stand-in for the great detective, rather it’s as if Thomas grew her from scratch; a brilliant and analytical mind on par with Sherlock Holmes, but within a person who has had to grow up adhering (to a greater or lesser degree) the societal expectations for a nineteenth-century lady of breeding. Thomas also continues to develop the characters of Mrs. Watson, Lord Ingram, Inspector Treadle, and Charlotte’s older sister, Livia. Though the supporting characters don’t get as much attention as Charlotte, there were several excellent subplots throughout the book. I was especially impressed with the characterization of Inspector Treadle, an honorable and forthright man, trying to come to grips with the existence of women who seek a measure of independence. This could easily have turned into some cliche or overdone condemnation of weak-minded men, but instead we see Treadles honestly wrestling with himself and his preconceptions.

Fans of historical mysteries, Sherlock Holmes, and the like should check out this series. If you enjoyed A Study in Scarlet Women you will likely enjoy this book as well. I cannot wait to see what Thomas does in future books in this series.

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

Book Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

 

Thaniel Steepleton is a low-level telegraphist with the British Home Office. One morning, after a long night shift, he finds a mysterious package sitting on his bed. Inside is a watch he is unable to open, though he can hear the clockwork moving inside. Forgetting about the mysterious watch as the months go by, Thaniel is drawn with the rest of the government into investigating bomb threats being made by Irish Nationalists. When the watch saves him from such a blast, Thaniel is determined to get to the bottom of the timepiece’s mystery. Seeking out the maker of the piece, a Japanese Baron turned watchmaker, Thaniel finds a quiet, unassuming man. As events continue, it appears more and more that Keita Mori is hiding something. Thaniel must weigh his growing regard for the kindly Mori with his increasing suspicion that he may be at the center of the bombings in London.

This is a neat little book, and took me down unexpected paths. In the interests of keeping my reviews spoiler free, I won’t elaborate any more on the plot here, but suffice to say that having started the book, I could not have predicted where it would wind up. There are elements of fantasy and steampunk in this story, but these aspects don’t seem intrusive, which is a fairly easy trap to fall into in this genre. Rather, the book felt like a historical mystery, with the more fantastical elements providing a gilding along the edges.

The characters of Thaniel Steepleton and Keita Mori are richly drawn. Mori, especially, is well done. As the plot weaves on, we come to regard both he and Thaniel as sympathetic characters, yet we are left guessing until the very end of the book whether or not Mori is a villain.

Fans of historical mystery, steampunk, or historical fantasy will find a great deal to like in this book. The book lies somewhere between the historical-with-a-bit-of-supernatural Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn, and the vividly steampunk Magnificent Devices series by Shelly Adina.

 

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: 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: Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

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The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Like most of you (I’m assuming), I really only think of one thing when I hear about Nero: the emperor who fiddled madly while Rome burned down around him. Well, Margaret George, one of historical fiction’s great writers, has set her sights on the infamous Roman emperor in an attempt to (at least partially) clear his name.

The novel (the first of two planned for Emperor Nero) focuses mainly on Nero’s childhood and early years as emperor. Born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, and nephew to the then-emperor Caligula (yes, that Caligula), who had his sister (Nero’s mother) banished from the country as a potential threat to his rule. Nero gets his first taste of Roman imperial politics at the tender age of three, when Caligula tries to drown him in a lake. Surviving the attempt, the young Nero’s situation is barely improved with the return of his mother after Caligula’s death, as her machinations, and those of the current rulers of the Roman empire, promise more pain and betrayal for the boy.

After ascending the throne at age sixteen, Nero pledges to himself to be a different style of emperor than his uncle, Caligula, or any of his scheming relatives waiting in the wings. An artist and musician at heart, he attempts to seek his own path as the most powerful man in the world.

George uses historical sources to bring accuracy and realism to her work, and this book is no exception. While artistic license must be taken (especially with Nero, whose achievements were largely posthumously suppressed from the historical record), Margaret George takes pain to ensure that her book cleaves as closely as possible to verifiable truth (and you know how I love a fictional book with a bibliography). Ultimately, this book is about family, and how the cutthroat and brutal dynamics of the Roman elite can sully even the most optimistic dreamer.

Any lover of history or historical fiction will find a lot to love in this book. Margaret George is the queen of historical fiction for good reason. The book is engagingly written and suspenseful, and George’s characterization of the young emperor is complex and compelling. In all, this is a highly readable book about a man who exists today as a caricature of himself.

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

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

To me, Hatshepsut has always been a fascinating woman. She defied all convention and was able to install herself as King in the highly regimented and conservative society of Ancient Egypt. 

Hatshepsut, as the daughter of a Pharaoh, was groomed from birth to be royalty. But her fate was always to be a King’s wife (Egypt did not have queens), and never a ruler in her own right. With the death of her father and her two eldest brothers, Hatshepsut found herself married to her sickly younger brother (in Ancient Egypt, keeping things in the family was taken to horrifying extremes). When their union did not produce a male heir, it seemed as if her father’s dynasty might end after only two generations. Starting as regent to the new infant king (her nephew), Hatshepsut slowly consolidated power around herself, eventually declaring herself co-king, and taking the reins of the ancient world’s most prosperous kingdom.

Early historical research painted Hatshepsut as a conniving, grasping, and devious woman. More recent (and balanced) studies of the Pharoah paint a different picture. Rather than a manipulative Lady Macbeth, Hatshepsut was an intelligent, educated woman who was born with every desired trait necessary to rule Egypt, except of course, the correct genitalia. Cooney paints a vivid account of palace life in Ancient Egypt, and does her best to bring this remarkable woman to life despite the (purposefully) sparse information about her. Cooney has done a remarkable job with this book, using data where she can and inference where she cannot. She is always careful to state what is conjecture and what is not, but at the same time presents the reader with the evidence for her statements. 

The Woman Who Would Be King is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: The Portable Frederick Douglass

The Portable Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, Henry Louis Gates (Editor), John Stauffer (Editor)

It being Black History Month (and considering the state of current events), I think I picked the perfect time to read this book. This Penguin Classic Edition is a collection of Douglass’ best and most famous writings.

The book is divided into four parts: Autobiographical (which includes his seminal work: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), fictional (his lone foray into fiction is The Heroic Slave, about Madison Washington and the Creole Slave Revolt), Speeches, and Journalism.The material covers from 1845 (Narrative, his first piece), through the 1890s (Shortly before his death in 1895).

Douglass’ writing is straightforward and erudite. His portrayals of slave life are vivid and arresting. His arguments are forcefully made and thoroughly worked out. This man is a born orator, and a succinct and powerful writer. I feel a bit guilty for not having read much of his work before now. It is also unnerving how relevant many of his topics are in the present day.

The Fugitive Slave act of 1850 meant that slaves who managed to escape from the South could still be hunted down, even if they managed to flee to a state where slavery was outlawed. The bar for sending someone back was depressingly low; two white witnesses simply had to attest that the person in question was, indeed, a runaway slave; no hard evidence necessary. Further, their victim was unable to speak in their own defense, the testimony of an African American being inadmissible in court at the time. This brings strongly to mind the sanctuary cities cropping up all over the nation; areas which offer safe spaces for undocumented immigrants to live and work without fear of being ripped away from their lives and families. Had such areas existed in the United States in the era of slavery, the fate of many escaped slaves may have been different.

Douglass also reserves special ire for the Church. While a believer himself, he boldly calls out the hypocrisy of the emphatically religious who profess their adherence to the tenets of Christianity, while at the same time treating their fellow man as something less than human. Douglass also has quite a bit to say about those who use the bible to justify their hate and institutionalize bigotry. If this sounds like many of the “religious freedom” laws cropping up in states across the United States, it’s because the arguments are basically the same. Now, however, Christianity is being used primarily to target LGBT+ individuals, and codify a second-class citizenship into our country’s laws.

In these troubled times, it is both wonderful and terrible to read something written so long ago that still resonates so strongly in the present day. I feel that no matter your political leanings, this is an incredibly important book. Hopefully it will be widely read in the coming years. It is always helpful to step back as a nation and ask “Are we moving forwards?” Or are we simply covering injustices in slightly altered costume, under the guise of adhering to tradition?

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. The Portable Frederick Douglass is currently available for purchase. 

Book Review: Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

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Maiden Flight by Harry Haskell

You’ve surely heard of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright Brothers took the first sustained flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. However,  you may not have heard of the Wright Brothers’ little sister, Katharine.

Katharine helped raise her older siblings, and was the first in the Wright family with a college education. Once her socially awkward brothers became worldwide celebrities, she left her teaching job to help Wilbur and Orville deal with well-wishers, journalists, and irate members of the scientific community. For years, Katharine took care of her older brothers, and with Wilbur’s untimely death in 1912, she and Orville became incredibly close.

While in her 50s, she fell in love with an old school friend, Henry Haskell (the Grandfather of the author). When the two were married in 1923, Orville considered their union the ultimate betrayal. He cut off all ties with his sister and refused to even go to her wedding. Haskell’s book details this period of her life.

The book is engagingly written in the first person, from Orville, Henry, and Katharine’s point of views. The tone is that of a journal entry or a letter to a good friend. Haskell does a good job of creating a unique voice for each of the three, and no wonder: he used their own letters as the primary source for the book. The story stutter-steps through time, doubling back on itself occasionally so we can see certain events through more than one perspective. This occasionally makes the chronology a bit tough to follow, but overall the method worked well.

In fact, my biggest complaint about the book is that there wasn’t more. The characters will reference something in passing, and I generally found myself looking to the Wright brothers’ Wikipedia page (I have a little bit of guilt over that) to get the full story. While I understand that the structure Haskell chose does not lend itself to long, detailed backstory, I do wish he had been able to include more detail.

In all, lovers of history or historical fiction will enjoy this intimate portrayal of a fascinating woman. Katharine Wright is a fiercely intelligent and forward-thinking woman in a time when women’s rights were just starting to take flight (ha).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Maiden Flight is currently available for purchase.