Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: The Philosopher’s Flight

I was in the mood to read something unusual this month, and Tom Miller’s new release (also a February Book of the Month Club selection), The Philosopher’s Flight, absolutely fit the bill.

thephilosopher'sflightAbout the book: Robert Weekes is a male sigrlist in a world of female sigilrists. No one knows why, but women are the dominant power in Empirical Philosophy, a brand of science condemned by many as a sort of evil magic because its drawers of sigils can do cool things like fly. Robert grew up in the shadow of his war-hero sigilrist mother and three practicing sisters who told him he was good– for a boy. But now he’s 18 and wants to join the Rescue & Evacuation division of the Corps. It’s 1917 and he wants to join the war effort as the first male Corpswoman. To do so, he’ll have to prove himself a million times over, as a student at an all-girls college, as a hoverer who can pull his weight, as a medalist in the General’s Cup, and so much more. He makes new friends, finds new causes, falls in love– but is a happy life as a good siligrist “for a boy” enough to make him give up a dream he could lose everything chasing?

” ‘Everyone ought to have a dream, Mr. Weekes,’ Addams said. ‘But the time comes when you have to put childish things away and face the world as it is.’ “

This is one of a very few episodic stories that I’ve really enjoyed in the last few years. For some reason the narrative style of stringing together lots of small adventures rather than one major plot arc just hasn’t been jiving with my reading preferences in a long while, but every now and then I still stumble across one that’s addictively compelling. The Philosopher’s Flight was one of those.

“I’ve never killed a man. But I have separated many an enemy from a fresh supply of oxygen and allowed him to breathe himself to death.”

The book starts from a future perspective, and each chapter starts with an excerpt from relevant (fictional) political writings that relate to current plot points or emotions. These details give away some answers; for instance, the reader knows who will survive the year when the characters start appearing in writings from future years. But, as with many episodic tales, the excitement is in the journey rather than the destination.

Those excerpts, despite their revelatory nature, are a great touch in Miller’s world-building, as is the appendix at the back of the book with further info on certain sigils that come into play in the narrative. I always check the page count of a book before I start, which is how I noticed that appendix, but I’m glad I did; I liked reading those sigil sections as they became relevant to the story rather than all at once after finishing the book. There aren’t reminders to match the chapters of the story to the sigil info in the back, so I had to shuffle back and forth a bit, but those extra details really made the story feel more credible, more complete, even as bizarre as the world is. Though it takes place in historical US, so much of the history is different with the addition of Empirical Philosophy that it doesn’t feel much like the real world, and every detail helps.

This book is… wacky, to say the least. It’s a little magical, a little scientific, a little historic, dips into modern social issues, and tackles every angle with a mix of humor and thoughtfulness that leaves the reader chuckling without removing some more serious undertones. The reader never knows what to expect, and Miller is clearly having his fun with creative license.

“We were a couple of dull young people in love, besotted, barely conscious of the hubbub around us. But that’s just the sort of moment when the gods decide they ought to lay you low.”

But under all the zany details, this is a book that flips the gender dynamic (women are most powerful) and keeps the reader thinking about the ways gender bias still exists in our real world. As interesting as I found that angle throughout the story, I was constantly on the fence about its effectiveness. There are some great lines that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s something I’m so used to in today’s society that I’ve hardly even noticed that it’s a problem,” but there were other lines about Robert fighting for recognition as a man that disappointed me, like even in a world when women have the advantage, the man we’re supposed to be sympathizing with is pushing to get to the top. In the end, I do think this story is advocating for gender equality rather than giving anyone an edge, and I know that’s a narrow line to walk, but there were instances when I thought it skewed a little too far one way or the other. Some of the women seemed unreasonably cruel, and Robert faces prejudice for being a male sigilrist that feels at times more like a challenge for real women to dive into the unfair aspects of a male-dominant world and fight through them, rather than an acknowledgment that such prejudices do exist and that there should be effort made on all sides of the problem.

“Devastatingly handsome men such as myself had to be on guard against city women, who were known to be brazenly forward in their attempts to corrupt the flower of American youth.”

” ‘Well,’ Ma said. ‘Maybe he’ll find himself a rich wife out there and support me in my old age. At any rate, it sounds like a grand adventure.’ “

But as doubtful as I occasionally was about the way Miller tackled the gender gap, I never came across any statements that actually turned me away from the book, and coming so close to the edge as it does kept me constantly thinking about what’s okay to accept from other people and what’s not, which is a worthwhile result for any novel.

“It’s never mattered that I can’t do it. What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would definitely read a sequel, but I have no idea if there will ever be one. This was such a fun read, but not the sort of fun that’s insubstantial. This is the kind of book that makes me appreciate Book of the Month Club– I probably would not have heard about this book otherwise, I chose it on a whim, and it was a quality read. Weird, but in a good way. I can’t wait for next month’s selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shares a lot of similarities to Miller’s new book; if you’re looking for a bizarre but engrossing novel about a magical branch of science with its own schools and applications, try Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy. It takes place in the modern rather than historical world, and it’s full of plot twists and unexpected changes of direction for the reader who’s a fan of the unpredictable.

Do you prefer fantasy/sci-fi stories full of imaginative details, or more contemporary stories that relate to the real world? Some combination of both?


The Literary Elephant


Review: As Bright As Heaven

I’m resolving to read all of my Book of the Month books as I receive them this year, and also eliminating my little backlog from last year. My January BOTM selection was Susan Meissner’s As Bright As Heaven, a historical fiction novel that’s set to be published in early February.

asbrightasheavenAbout the book: The Bright family (mother, father, and three daughters) is moving to Philadelphia to take over Uncle Fred’s funeral home business. They’re still grieving the death of the son’s only family, a boy who lived to six months before a congenital heart defect killed him. In 1918, there aren’t doctors to cure what Henry has, at least not in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. So they’re moving to Philadephia for a new start, for a new perspective on death, and a chance at a better life. But trouble finds them in Phildelphia too, when the Spanish Influenza outbreak brings customers and illness to their door. The Brights must find a way to carry on after the disease rips their lives apart.

“I no longer fear Death, though I know that I should. I’m strangely at peace with what I used to think of as my enemy. Living seems more the taskmaster of the two, doesn’t it? Life is wonderful and beautiful but oh, how hard it can be. Dying, by contrast, is easy and simple, almost gentle. But who can I tell such a thing to? No one. I am troubled by how remarkable this feeling is.”

As Bright as Heaven was a bit too slow and sentimental for my taste. You can probably even see in the quotes I’m including here that there’s something kind of… airy about the writing. It uses a rambling, circuitous way of getting to the point. There’s also an excruciating amount of detail; some detail adds to the atmospheric quality of the book, but so many times I found myself reading about things like the color of tiles on the kitchen floor or a which park the children like to visit and what they like to do there didn’t have any bearing on the story or add to my sense of the time period. Details like that made the book seem to go on and on while I sifted through the story for the important parts.

“If people don’t do their part to stop the spread of evil when they’re asked to, it just gets stronger and then no one can stop it.”

Perhaps most importantly, I’d like to talk about the Spanish Influenza. This is the root of the book’s plot and emotion, and it comes up quickly in the synopsis. And yet only a third of the book takes place during the Spanish flu epidemic. I thought it seemed like a short section, so when I finished reading I went back to check: from the first page of the flu’s appearance to the page that says “the flu is finally leaving” is only 32% of the novel, and there’s more going on in that span than the flu alone. Of course, World War I is ongoing at the time (1918) , and the narration alternates between four perspectives: the mother and three daughters of the Bright family, who each have their own set of intrigues. I was disappointed that the most interesting part of the book, the historical part that most awoke my sense of awe and compassion, the part that convinced me to read this book in the first place, ended so quickly. That’s not how the Spanish Influenza epidemic would’ve seemed to characters living at this time.

“Death is not our foe. There is no foe. There is only the stunningly fragile human body, a holy creation capable of loving with such astonishing strength but which is weak to the curses of a fallen world. It is the frailty of flesh and blood that causes us to succumb to forces greater than ourselves. We are like butterflies, delicate and wonderful, here on earth for only a brilliant moment and then away we fly. Death is appointed merely to close to the door to our suffering and open with the gate to Paradise.”

Can you see what I mean, about the writing? It’s like a marshmallow, big and beautiful and fluffy, but so lightweight. It’s so sentimental, and I also have a hard time imagining anyone who’s dying of the Spanish flu seeing death as something beautiful. Perhaps it’s just my personal preference; I know I prefer books that tackle hard or devastating topics to do so with a light hand, to provide only the facts and let the reader be the judge of how terrible an event was by seeing how it affects the characters.

And speaking of the characters: their fates are the biggest pull for the reader throughout this novel. Especially after the flu has passed, there’s nothing to read for other than to wonder what will happen to the Bright family next. Unfortunately, I found their fates entirely too predictable for that to be a compelling mystery. In the end, it was pleasing on some level to see my guesses proved correct, even if I was a little impatient about getting there. As Bright as Heaven is the sort of book that ties all its loose ends and gives the reader the happy ending, even if it takes some traumatic detours along the way.

“There’s always a way to make something better, even if it means sweeping up the broken pieces and starting all over. That’s how we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we’re still alive.”

But let’s end with some merits: the fact that the Brights are living in and operating a funeral home at the time of the Spanish flu epidemic gives the reader an interesting inside perspective on the severity of the outbreak and the horrors that even the survivors experienced. It’s also interesting to see a bit of the home perspective of the WWI effort, and the difficulty some soldiers experienced with resuming their lives afterward. And of course, with all of its superfluous details, As Bright as Heaven is very atmospheric, which is always a plus in historical fiction.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was debating between 2 and 3 stars, to be honest. If I were a person who used half stars (personally I’d rather just force myself to choose), I would’ve gone with a 2.5. The part about the Spanish flu was fascinating, and while I didn’t like the writing style I knew that was only a personal preference rather than a true fault in the writing. Sentimentality is just too sickly sweet for my liking. Give me grit. I probably won’t ever reread this book, or pick up anything else from this author, but I am more interested in the Spanish flu now so it wasn’t a total loss.

Further recommendations:

  1.  If you’re interested in underappreciated facets of history, try Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea, a YA historical fiction about a little-known naval disaster during WWII.
  2. I also encourage you to pick up my favorite historical fiction novel, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, a book about the aftermath of war in Afghanistan.
  3. And if you want something atmospheric and heart-wrenching but faster paced, try Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, a Gilded Age historical fiction mystery involving a carnival disaster, a misplaced baby, an asylum, and more.

Are you a Book of the Month member? Which book did you pick in January and what did you think of it?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Underground Railroad

I’ve seen Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on quite a few shelves since its publication toward the end of 2016, but somehow I failed to form a definite opinion about whether or not I wanted to read it until the final two weeks of 2017, when I suddenly needed a Pulitzer Prize winning book to complete my reading challenge. As I perused the list of winners and considered the titles most readily available, The Underground Railroad was the one that jumped out at me, and I had to pick it up immediately. I’m glad I did.

theundergroundrailroadAbout the book: Cora was born on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. When she was ten years old, her mother ran away, leaving Cora behind. As a teenager, Cora is presented with a similar opportunity: she can leave slavery behind and escape with Caesar, who has a connection with the Underground Railroad. Once she steps foot off the Randall property, she’ll either end up free or dead. Although the outcome may sound simple, the journey is anything but. The train ride itself doesn’t take much time, but Cora spends months– years– trying to escape the “crimes” she left behind her and find the life she’s been told she can have off the plantation. “Free” never quite seems like an accurate description of Cora’s situation though, and there’s always the danger that she’ll be returned to Randall for a gruesome fate. A trail of deaths and injustices follows Cora on her search for safety as she travels through a wide range of places with all manner of people and discovers how deep prejudice can run.

“But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes– believes with all its heart– that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

One of the most intriguing aspects about this particular Underground Railroad story was the use of a real underground train as part of the system. This new twist is also, I think, the main reason that Whitehead’s novel does not read like any other Underground Railroad tale I’ve ever encountered. The actual traveling between states takes so much less time than traversing on foot that the focus stays firmly on the characters: their lives and choices and hardships.

“Then it comes, always– the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead allows the story to radiate out from Cora. We see sections about Caesar (her escape-mate), Cora’s mother and her mother’s mother, and even the slave hunter who’s dedicated himself to tracking Cora down. The reader may not agree with all of these characters’ choices, but the wider view of influencers in Cora’s life humanizes characters that might otherwise have been stock heroes or villains. Whitehead shows the reader the pasts that made each of them who they are, and how those people helped form Cora’s character and life conditions. We also see through Cora’s eyes at many different stages of her life rather than solely the time frame of her escape attempt. Cora herself is easy to appreciate, but the additional perspectives give the story a wider scope and a higher feel of plausibility. Whitehead balances the nuances of the multiple views expertly.

“Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

The only thing I would change about this book is the way it jumps through time. Normally I appreciate stories that start in medias res; I appreciate when characters don’t waste time explaining things blatantly to the reader that they wouldn’t be explaining if they weren’t aware that they were narrating a book, things that the reader can learn as the story progresses; but each new chapter of this book, and sometimes sections within chapters, seem to start in different times and places than where it left off, and it was often confusing for several sentences, paragraphs, or even pages how we had gotten from one point to the other and where we had ended up. There are lots of smaller stories within the overall arc of The Underground Railroad, and each of them jumps right in to the important parts without going into those helpful background details like time and place, and the big event that made him/her leave point A for point B in the first place. The Underground Railroad is a book that requires constant attention, but it will get you where you’re going in the end and it’s worth the extra puzzling to discover the truths Cora has to share.

“Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.”

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a great read, a book with pages that practically turn themselves because of the engaging plot and sympathetic characters, but also a book that teaches. For the first time since US history lessons in elementary school, I felt like I was reading a new story about the Underground Railroad, something that connected with me emotionally and still felt like it had relevant messages about kindness and equality even in a time when slavery no longer exists in the US. I’m definitely feeling encouraged to pick up more Pulitzer Prize winners.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is indeed another Pulitzer Prize winner that I read recently and highly respected. It also focuses on racism in southern US, although this time in the early 1900s. It also challenges misogyny and other forms of oppression, in a very uplifting and exciting way. It’s not to be read lightly, as it deals with some pretty heavy subjects, including rape and abuse, but it has some great messages to share for readers willing to brave its stormy seas.

Have you read any Pulitzer Prize books that you would recommend?


The Literary Elephant

Mini-Review: The Color Purple

I do love a good classic, but generally I go into them knowing they’ll probably be dense and a little slower to read. I picked up The Color Purple because I needed a book from the bottom of my TBR for my 2017 reading challenge. The fact that it was on the bottom and a classic besides had me wary about how long it would take (I’m still hurrying to wrap up some 2017 goals) and how much I would actually enjoy it. But by about the tenth page, I knew: I was going to finish it within 24 hours, and I was going to love it. Thank you, reading challenge.

thecolorpurpleAbout the book: narrated through letters addressed to Celia, her sister Nettie, and God, Celia tells the story of her life in 1930’s Georgia. She’s a colored woman in a place and time that’s still very prejudiced, but she’s also found very little love in her childhood family, and in the family she was forced to marry into as an adult. She does, however, make some interesting friends after a fashion and begins to see the wrongs that have been done to her, as well as the ways in which she can rise up against them and persevere.

The Color Purple is written in dialect, meant to sound in the reader’s mouth or mind the way Celia (or her companions) would actually speak. This means the grammar isn’t perfect, the spelling is intentionally wrong in places, and the reader has to find the rhythm of the narration to read it at a normal pace. But, unlike some attempts at dialect writing, I had no trouble following this story, and I doubt many readers will struggle with the unusual style. It’s not my own dialect, so I can’t vouch for how accurate/inoffensive it may seem to others, but personally I had no complaints with it. The hardest aspect of the writing style for me to accept was the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, which occasionally made it difficult for me to differentiate between Celia’s running commentary and someone else speaking.

“My skin dark. My nose just a nose. My lips just lips. My body just any woman’s body going through the changes of age. Nothing special here for nobody to love. No honey colored hair, no cuteness. Nothing young and fresh. My heart must be young and fresh though, it feel like it blooming blood.”

Even though the reader can see from the very first page how hard Celia’s life has been, The Color Purple is not overly heavy or depressing. She’s not an intrinsically sad or angry person, so even when I should have been outraged about something bad that happens to her, I found that reaction somewhat stifled by a greater interest in what would happen next, what it would mean for Celia going forward, because she herself always seems to be looking forward rather than back. That isn’t to say that the reader can’t appreciate the horrifying nature of some of the sins committed against Celia, but Celia’s tendency not to dwell on them overmuch provides a necessary sort of pull through the story that keeps the reader from throwing down the book in inconsolable despair.

“Olinka don’t believe in educating girls she said, quick as a flash, They’re like white people at home who don’t want colored people to learn.”

On the contrary, the best thing about this book is how encouraging I found it, despite some difficult subject matter. If you’re a reader who likes to know what they’re getting into, let me warn you that there’s rape, spousal abuse, misogyny, prejudice, mutilation, displacement of native peoples and more. And yet, this isn’t a book solely for women of color, or even just for women. It’s full of positive messages about treating other people with kindness and finding strength from within. It’s about appreciating oneself first of all. It’s about righting wrongs, starting in one’s own family, in one’s own heart. There is history and culture here, but the morals they provide are accessible for all audiences, in a myriad of situations. The world needs more books like this: stories that keep the past from being forgotten, with the purpose of improving the future.

“The world is changing, I said. It is no longer a world just for boys and men.”

“Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book has been on my TBR for so long I don’t even remember exactly why I put it there. I knew next to nothing about The Color Purple before I started, but in spite of my hesitation it constantly surprised and impressed me. I will definitely be recommending this one, and it’s one of the few books that I’ve really been thankful for my reading challenge pushing me to read.

Further recommendations:

  1. Toni Morrison’s Sula is another short classic novel that focuses on prejudice toward African American citizens, and especially on the strife that prejudice creates within a smaller community. It’s a phenomenal tale of friendship and betrayal, with a hint of the fantastic.
  2. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a greater-known classic that’s also very easy to read and highlights the history of prejudice in America and the need for equality. This one is narrated by a young girl who learns some hard lessons about the state of her southern community when her father goes to trial to represent an African American man accused of raping a white girl.

What’s next: It’s starting to look definitely possible that I could finish my 2017 reading challenge list before the end of the month. I’m forging ahead with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I also know next to nothing about (maybe there are witches?) but am picking up for my challenge. I’ll have another mini-review up for this play shortly.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Alienist

I am making forward progress on my 2017 reading challenge! I came across Caleb Carr’s The Alienist through Book of the Month Club, and it caught my interest immediately with its premise as a grisly murder mystery set in New York’s Gilded Age. When I realized it also fulfilled one of the open slots in my reading challenge that I’d been having trouble finding a book for, I knew I had to read it.

thealienistAbout the book: New York Times reporter John Moore is pulled into an unprecedented murder investigation by his college friends Dr. Kreizler, an early American psychologist (or “alienist”), and Theodore Roosevelt, president of New York City’s board of police commissioners. The year is 1896, and society shares a distrustful view of behavioral science, at best. The idea of hunting a serial murderer who blends in with the masses and chooses his victims randomly in a city as large as New York seems such an impossible task that Kreizler and Moore are forced to undertake it secretly, as even such authorities as the police commissioners and city mayor argue that there is no use in even attempting such unconventional methods. But the killer is in the midst of a crisis, both escalating his crimes and daring Kreizler to catch him, and Moore cannot in good conscience let the murderer roam free. So begins a race to save undervalued lives, in which the hunters also become the hunted, and nothing is certain or safe.

“There are moments in life when one feels as though one’s walked into the wrong theater during the middle of a performance.”

The murder mystery portion of this book is full of details to commend it. First there are the characters: the investigative team is made up of different races, religions, and genders. One of Kreizler’s assistants is still a child himself, which helps balance the fact that the murderer’s victims are also children. All of Dr. Kriezler’s assistants are criminals; they’ve been pronounced sane, but their pasts are dark and tragic. The murders themselves are gory and sensational, with just the sort of gruesome nature one expects from a horrifying thriller. The action scenes are fast-paced and tense, the psychology is contemplative and impressive. And the victims are young immigrant boys working as prostitutes who dress as women– a category of citizen either spat upon, taken advantage of, or overlooked entirely by most of New York. Moore and Kreizler’s investigative team advocates fiercely for these boys’ right to a proper investigation; they are among the few who are outraged by their treatment and attempting to right the situation, rather than claiming, as many of their fellow citizens do, that the boys “had it coming” or that the city is “well rid of them.” It’s a surprisingly diverse and inclusive book with positive morals for the time period it presents. For all these reasons, I enjoyed The Alienist, and would recommend it to anyone looking for literature focused on the Gilded Age.

“Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations–then we could capture the man in fact.”

But there were also several reasons I enjoyed it less than I should have, based on its intriguing premise and well-crafted mystery.

The first is that this book seems to struggle with deciding whether it wants to be a fictional mystery, or a nonfictional account of the seediness of New York in 1896. The combination shouldn’t have been a problem, but I found that while I was wondering about who the killer of child prostitutes could be, it was rather annoying to be interrupted with very long informational paragraphs about the history of fingerprinting as admissible evidence in court. The narrator of the book does announce that he’s writing this story from a future time (for no apparent purpose other than to share plenty of these historical details once their significance has become apparent), but the writing so routinely skews toward assuming its readers know nothing of life in the 1890’s, and then explaining in depth aspects that fiction readers often need much less prompting to believe. I could have done simply with a one-sentence reminder that police do not practice fingerprinting as a regular means of criminal identification in 1896, and enjoyed the story more. I know this is a subjective aspect to criticize– some readers must appreciate a real history lesson wrapped up in their high-stakes murder stories. Usually I would count myself among those ranks, but I found the educational nature of this book excessive; it was difficult even to feel that the story was truly set in the Gilded Age, with the narrator providing so much more detail about the time period than people generally feel the need to do about their own setting. The Gilded Age felt like a fictional backdrop Moore was exploring rather than the world that The Alienist‘s characters lived and breathed.

Additionally, there’s the matter of Moore himself. He’s a very passive part of the mystery. His area of expertise is the criminal realm of New York (on which he has spent much of his career reporting), but from the very beginning of The Alienist he knows his paper wouldn’t publish anything about the sort of story he’s investigating with Kreizler– which leaves me to wonder how well his “criminal knowledge” and the murder case actually overlap. As the book unfolds, it seems the answer is: not much. He contributes to the group discussions, and does his share of the leg work in the investigation, but essentially he could be anyone. He’s just a warm body, with a specialty much less significant to the hunt than the others. This could have been a much different story from one of the other perspectives, which leaves me to wonder… why Moore?

And the final hangup, for me, was the cringe-worthy “Aw, shucks” nature of the narration. The characters seem excessively fictionalized because of their cutesy dialogue and gestures. In the midst of a serious and gruesome crime spree interspersed with heavier philosophical dialogue and mortally dangerous situations, we find lines like this:

” ‘Well, Sara wasn’t the only one trying to be professional!’ I protested, stamping a foot.”

This is a Harvard alum speaking, a reputable New York Times reporter pulled in on a special murder investigation. He’s gone off topic to gossip about a misperceived romance, speaking with another grown man, emphasizing his failure to behave professionally and trying to further his point by stamping a foot. The novel is peppered with other such corny nonsense and cliches, most notably, as happens immediately after this line, when Moore is demanding to be filled in on some detail he feels excluded from moments before the realization he should’ve had early hits him “like a brick wall.”

But now that I’ve highlighted my complaints, let me send you back to my first paragraph of review that’s full of the things I loved about this book, because those were the reasons I persisted in reading all 500 pages. I remained interested to the very last paragraph in discovering not only who the murderer would turn out to be, but why he had become such a notorious killer. As that seemed to be the purpose of the book, I must say it was a successful novel for me, even though I had much difficulty with the style of its narration. There are some valuable lessons in here, if you’re willing to look for them.

“Every human being must find his own way to cope with such severe loss, and the only job of a true friend is to facilitate whatever method he chooses.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The Alienist is the first book in a historical fiction/mystery duology. It reads fine as a standalone, and I think the second book follows the same characters (from a new perspective) on an entirely different case. But from the synopsis and the reviews I’ve skimmed, I’m afraid the same things I found issue with in this one persist; although I’m glad I read The Alienist, I won’t be continuing on to read its sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church Of Marvels is set in the same place and time period, but contains much less blatant information about the era– the setting is woven beautifully into a story with connections to the city’s asylums and pleasure dens and general areas of disrepute. The mystery unfolds through alternating perspectives and proceeds at a thrilling pace.
  2. If you’re looking for more history in your murder mysteries rather than less, try Erik Larsson’s The Devil in the White City. This nonfiction book’s subject, real murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes, is the primary subject of Larsson’s Devil. Although this one’s not set in New York, it does also take place in the 1890’s, and features another burgeoning U.S. city of interest– Chicago. This is a book that reads like fiction, but makes no attempt to hide its intent to inform.

What’s next: I’m currently flying through Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder. I’m hoping to stay on track to finish my reading challenge before the end of the year, and The Wonder is my next step in doing that. It’s set in an Irish village and focuses on a girl who can apparently live without food– a miracle? The situation is further complicated when a nurse who’s traveled to see the girl finds herself racing to save the child’s life.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Between Shades of Gray

I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and was looking forward to picking up her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. This book, a YA historical fiction tale, was the winner of July’s Choose My Next Read vote, so thank you to everyone who participated and stay tuned for August’s vote later this week!

betweenshadesofgrayAbout the book: Lina is at home in Lithuania with her mother and small brother when the family is forcibly deported by Soviets. Lina’s father is already missing, so when the rest of the family arrives at the train station amidst a crowd of deportees, she goes looking for him. The men are not going to the same place as the women and children and infirm, so Lina must use her artistic drawings and trust the passing hands of strangers to convey messages to her absent father concerning the family’s whereabouts. Conditions in the train car are awful, but they’re nothing compared to the inhumane treatment Lina and her family find in the labor camps. Eventually they land in Siberia, where they must build their own winter-proof huts out of scraps while the Soviet officers enjoy warmth and fresh food from their bakery. Lina and her family fight for survival for themselves and the other members of their group, knowing that their chances are better if they can only make it through the first sunless Siberian winter.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen…but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”

About the layout: Between Shades of Gray is told in the first person, from Lina’s perspective. The chapters are short and easily readable, despite occasionally gruesome subject matter. There are also sections within the chapters that reflect Lina’s memories prior to her deportation.

The memories felt unnecessary to me. They don’t further the plot, and the characterization they show could be gained from Lina’s present story line, except maybe in the case of Lina’s father’s past “crimes.” Yet even those I felt could be described from the present, and nothing would be lost. Some may argue that it’s touching to compare Lina’s life before and after the war, but it felt so… expected. Of course Lina had a beautiful, innocent life with innocent troubles before the war. She was a young girl with hopes and dreams–and I would have felt the same about her past without seeing those memories. I kept looking for something in this book to surprise me, but the memories were not that something.

“It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”

Between Shades of Gray is certainly emotional, but the emotion also feels obvious. Of course there were horrors against humanity in WWII. Of course people experienced unspeakable atrocities, and of course when we’re given a chance to look at their lives individually it’s all tragic. That aspect of the book did not surprise me at all, either. I was expecting sad deaths and unfair living conditions, so their appearance was not shocking, and I was still looking for something surprising to drive the story beyond the expected.

This is a story in which things happen to the characters more often than the characters are in control of their own actions. Lina does what she’s told. She doesn’t like it, but she wants to survive. Occasionally she draws to help create a record and to spread news to her father of her whereabouts, but those moments are quick and sparse and don’t give the story much forward motion. Sometimes Lina defies orders by stealing or sneaking away from where she’s supposed to be, but again, they’re small moments that contribute to small episodes of action and add little to the main narrative. Perhaps one could argue that the main plot thread involves Lina’s family trying to find and reunite with Lina’s father, but other than asking for news from strangers and sending out clues of their lives through more strangers, there’s nothing there to go on. Thus, the book lacks plot, motivation, and character action, and without those things there’s less tension except in small, episodic increments.

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”

One thing Sepetys does particularly well is to humanize the “bad guys.” The bald man in Lina’s group who is obsessed with death annoys and frightens everyone, but Sepetys will warm hearts to him in the end. The German soldier who grates on Lina’s nerves also has a story that blurs the line between villain and victim. The rude woman Lina’s family lives with at their first labor camp has a surprise in store when it comes time to say goodbye. The good guys hide their sacrifices and the bad guys are better than meets the eye. Lina’s mother is especially interesting. It would’ve been interesting to see some of this book through her perspective, behind the brave face she puts on for her children. Somehow she knows who to be kind to, how to stretch her resources, and how to put the difficulties of a situation aside.

This is a suitable book for young YA readers, as the horrors of war are related as morals rather than gory scenes.

“There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I gave them the same rating, I think if it came to a choice I would say I preferred Salt to the Sea over this novel. There are some similarities, but the switching between character perspectives in Salt to the Sea and the climax of that story involving the naval disaster gave that book more momentum. I did feel that Between Shades of Gray was an emotional and worthwhile read, and I know Sepetys has a lesser-known novel that I may be interested in reading in the future, but overall I think I’m learning that YA historical fiction is not my favorite thing. It’s a little too transparent for my taste.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a great follow-up. I would recommend reading Salt to the Sea second, because there are some related characters with a small continuing plot thread that would be easier to pick up in publication order. This novel also emphasizes Sepetys’ skill at proving no one is who they seem; every character has a private story that makes them so much more than their role in WWII.
  2. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another obvious but worthwhile suggestion for Sepetys fans. The Book Thief is also YA historical fiction focused on WWII, but takes place in Germany, focusing on a poor family who must pretend to believe what they don’t in order to survive Hitler’s changes in the country.

What’s next: I’m currently rereading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and I will definitely have a review up for that within the month, but it is kind of long and a reread so I may pick up another undetermined book from my July TBR to read at the same time, in which case there would be another review before that one.


The Literary Elephant