The making of the Queen of Mystery

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read a solution to the historical mystery of Agatha Christie’s disappearance.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

WWI and Interwar Period

From the publisher: In December 1926, Agatha Christie goes missing. Investigators find her empty car on the edge of a deep, gloomy pond, the only clues some tire tracks nearby and a fur coat left in the car—strange for a frigid night. Her World War I veteran husband and her daughter have no knowledge of her whereabouts, and England unleashes an unprecedented manhunt to find the up-and-coming mystery author.

David Suchet, who played Hercule Poirot for 25 years, presciently expressed how I feel about this book in the 2014 documentary The Mystery of Agatha Christie:

When I first heard about Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, I immediately flashed back to a different documentary, which I cannot now find. I couldn’t remember any of the details except that Agatha Christie had disappeared for a short period of time, and that it had never satisfactorily been explained. This wonderful novel gives the explanation I craved; whether it is truly the reason why is irrelevant, because it’s great storytelling. (And much better than the Doctor Who version, although I enjoyed it at the time.)(Warning: Possible spoilers.)

The first section of the book is split between past and the present of 1926, with the past being first person from Agatha Christie, and the present being a third person close from her husband’s POV. The technique works very well, with the past informing the present. Although the chapters from the past have the title “Manuscript” on each, it wasn’t until I reached the second part of the book that I realized those sections were supposed to be from a manuscript written by Christie.

In truth, the only time I felt like myself was when I was writing. No matter how I tried to anticipate his needs, I couldn’t please Archie, and all the qualities he used to admire—my spontaneity, my love of drama and adventure, and my desire to discuss feelings and events with him—now irritated him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Both Agatha and Archie are well drawn, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how WWI changed Archie’s personality. It’s implied that he suffers from PTSD, not exactly a reach for a man who served in combat (as evidenced by the award of the Distinguished Service Order in 1918). PTSD can cause longterm personality changes, but I would have liked a little more explicit discussion of that process. Perhaps any overt mention was omitted to avoid making him sympathetic; he isn’t very.

Archie walks alone, of course. It wouldn’t be seemly for him to link hands with these regular folks, not in his current predicament.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

One of the factors that comes between them, it seems, is the difference in class. Agatha went to finishing school in France and is well-schooled in the etiquette of the upper class. It’s not exactly clear what Archie’s status is, but he is shown to flagrantly violate the established norms early on in the relationship. What is crystal clear that Agatha’s mother thinks Archie is a terrible match for Agatha.

No matter what happened in the future, I didn’t want her disliking Archie any more than she already did. And nothing had more significance than a man acting like a gentleman and a woman acting her part as a lady in turn.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The other characters in the story are also memorable: Agatha’s mother, the investigator Kenward, their daughter Rosalind, Agatha’s sister Madge, and Rosalind’s nanny (and Agatha’s part time secretary) Charlotte each contribute to the story line and are easy to imagine. The interaction of Agatha with all of these characters, and her husband, as well as the lingering remembrance of financial woes when her father died, move Agatha inexorably to being the author of legend.

Madge exhaled cigarette smoke as she reclined on the sofa even further, ever assuming the pose of the confident older sister and first daughter.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A couple of themes in the book that I quite liked were that of what are the duties of a wife and the role of the unreliable narrator. The first was a well considered review of what women were taught for a good deal of Anglo-American history, as enunciated by Agatha’s mother, which basically were to ensure that you caught and kept a man to keep your status. The arc of Agatha’s view on this advice is captivating, and I could hear echoes of what I was told by my grandmother and mother in what she was told; indeed, some women are still given the same kind of advice even today.

A wife’s duty is to be with her husband, because her husband must come first, even before her children. If a wife leaves her husband alone for too long, she will lose him.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The saddest application of marital advice was to Agatha’s relationship to her daughter, Rosalind. Archie’s fear of being displaced and her mother’s admonitions to always defer to her husband’s wishes lead Agatha to distance herself from Rosalind in her babyhood. That decision seems tragic for them both.

Perhaps this was mankind’s fate—to learn that none of our paths were as straight as we believed they would be.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

The unreliable narrator was a lovely touch, as it referenced Christie’s groundbreaking use of the same in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which arguably was what propelled her into the front ranks of her field. The observation that we are unreliable narrators of our own stories has a double application: it’s simply an interesting idea about our personal blindspots and also a commentary on the story itself.

As I reread it for a final time, it occurred to me that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives, crafting stories about ourselves that omit unsavory truths and highlight our invented identities.

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict has created a marvelous solution to an enduring mystery that even Agatha herself would have appreciated (if she hadn’t been so set on keeping it secret).


Waiting for George

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tour through the New York of George Gershwin, guided by his paramour and collaborator, Kay Swift.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Publication date: March 2, 2021

Giveaway

We have 2 paperback copies of Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan up for grabs! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 12th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

Mitchell James Kaplan has written a meticulously researched book, and clearly explains in the author’s note where he has deviated from historical fact, something I always appreciate from authors of historical fiction. New York City of the Jazz Age provides a roll call of celebrities, as the protagonist, Kay Swift, was married to a wealthy and prominent financier, and then became involved with George Gershwin, so she did come into contact with people whose names, unlike her own, are well known: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, Adele and Fred Astaire, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Averell Harriman, Fats Waller, Langston Hughes, George Balanchine, Richard Rogers, Lorenzo Hart, Maurice Ravel, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name quite a few, but not all. However, most of these are mere cameos, and it was a pleasure to learn about Kay herself, the first woman to have composed a produced Broadway score.

Kaplan explores themes that still resonate: the problems of cultural appropriation, the relationship of the immigrant to the US, and the inequal opportunity afforded people based on race and class. Kay’s husband, Jimmy Warburg, immigrated to the US in his youth, with the advantage of money and the disadvantage of being Jewish, albeit only by culture, and he gives insight into how many Jews underestimated Hitler. Jimmy also introduces Kay to the concept of an open marriage, only to find that he likes it more for himself than for his wife.

The book succeeds on an intellectual level, but I never quite connected with the characters. All of them seem to be held at a certain distance, even Kay, from whose point of view the story is told in a close third person. Gershwin remains an enigma. It feels as though we are going through a checklist of events rather than it feeling organic, perhaps in order to make space for all the cameos. Dorothy Parker and Adele Astaire’s cameos have a little more weight, but it feels like breadth was chosen over depth in this telling. But mostly I felt like I was waiting around for George Gershwin to show up and sweep Kay away into the glittering company he surrounded himself with.

If you’d like an overview of the New York cultural milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, Rhapsody is a good introduction, competently written and thought-provoking.


Weaving through the Crucchi

The Garden of Angels by David Hewson

 Rachel’s Random Resources Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to go to Nazi-occupied Venice and see it through the eyes of a young man grappling with his identity.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 320

Publisher: Severn House

ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources

WWII historical fiction

From the publisher: The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.

David Hewson has created a taut snapshot of a few days in Nazi-occupied Venice through the eyes of a young weaver and those whose stories intersect his own. The frame story is set in Venice of 1999, but the main action is in Venice of 1943, when 18-year-old Paolo finds himself confronted with the world outside his hidden retreat set in the garden of a long-abandoned palazzo. His neighbors thought the isolation was because he was gay, a fact Paolo has mostly stayed unaware of, knowing that his family was also considered outsiders by the insular Venetians.

Imagination was a place he’d usually avoided. Particularly of late. There were corpses there, eyes open, looking at him.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Paolo must confront the basic question raised by the Nazi occupation: Does he stand aside, and hope the storm passes him, or does he act, whether to collude with the Germans to help himself out of the poverty the war has brought or to resist them? It’s a question most of the book’s non-Jewish characters ask themselves at some point. Paolo’s moment comes at the insistence of the parish priest Filippo Garzone, who believes that inaction is not a choice.

There were occasions, it seemed, when the right decision was beyond a simple man like him. To act or do nothing? Both might end in bloodshed, for guilty and innocent alike.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

I haven’t been reading many WWII era books of late, but I made an exception for this one because it is set in a part of the war I know less about. The invasion of Allied troops helped split Italy in half between the southern royalist government and the northern Mussolini one, which was, effectively, a puppet of Hitler. Venice was in the northern half. This sobering book gave a lovely introduction to the people and geography of Venice. Hewson’s pride of elegant and measured, giving the story the respect it deserves.

The city on the water was spared most of this since it lived at the edge of the conflict, a precious gilded prison too beautiful for the horrors Italy was seeing elsewhere.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The framing works quite well, as Nico provides a counterpoint to his grandfather’s story. No one in the 1990s wants to talk about the war, preferring to boil it down to its barest essence, so Nico is left on his own to puzzle out how the veracity of his grandfather’s account. Not surprisingly, Nico is unnerved by the idea of his grandfather’s sexual identity being something other than completely heterosexual. The frame also helps build the tension for the main story, as Paolo insists that Nico keep it to himself, that he’s not to share it with his father.

If the fact a couple of men in extremis should get close to one another is …weird…I hate to think what you’ll make of life later on. Unless you lead a dull one.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

Hewson manages to avoid creating characters of unrelenting good or evil, allowing us to see that all of them are human, making choices that are good or evil instead. The text highlights how well-meaning people can drift into a totalitarian state, which is part of the enduring fascination with the Third Reich: how do ordinary people end up committing the atrocity of the Holocaust? He also does a good job of presenting the pressures the Germans (which the Venetians call the Crucchi) put on the inhabitants of the country they occupy, and how those pressures warp people.

That was one of the lessons I think he was trying to teach me: evil wasn’t special. There was no need for extraordinary villains with scars and wicked, dark glints in their eyes. It was ordinary, mundane, a part of the city, a lurking virus within us all.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The character who best exemplifies the grays of the story is Luca Alberti, a former police officer turned liaison with the Nazis. Alberti is hard to get a grasp on, as he lies to himself as much as to anyone else. He’s somehow likable despite his alignment with the Crucchi, although the Venetians generally view him with contempt. Perhaps his motives are more than self-serving, but each reader will have to render judgment.

Dust and the remains of insects rose like a golden mist in the lamplight as he unhinged the bronze clasp on the cover and let the contents breathe for the first time in years.

David Hewson, The Garden of Angels

The Garden of Angels is an absorbing tale, both for its imagining of wartime Venice and the themes it raises of how to deal with oppression in the present and with memories of the past.


Exiled between worlds

Big 4+ prepublication review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

r/suggestmeabook: I want a political novel seared by the trauma of colonialism as experienced by a woman of color acting as an officer for the colonizing power.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 442

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 3/23/21

Series: Magic of the Lost

From the publisher: Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought. Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

This novel, graphically demonstrating the ills of imperialism, made me dream of the Amritsar Massacre and the Sepoy Rebellion (which was the name given back when I first learned of it) when I was in the midst of it, not sure which way the story was going. However, there are little frills of French, so I probably should have been thinking the Battle of Algiers. C.L. Clark’s book is that vivid, thrusting you into the point of view of what it would be like to feel trapped between a world that had trained you and an unremembered land that gave you birth.

The Balladrians could—would—flay them all alive. Or whip them just as near. It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: The Qazali had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Touraine has long been caught between her ambition to make something of herself in the Baladaire empire for which she has fought in many wars and her desire to protect her fellow Sands, other conscripts from her homeland. That tension is pulled to its utmost when her unit is deployed to the land of their birth, Qazal. No one wants her—not the country she’s bled for or the country she was pulled from with no say in the matter. Sometimes you just want to shake her to see things as they are (and occasionally yell at her for some ill-considered choices), but you can’t help feeling for her predicament.

Always, always someone weighed her. Always, someone looked for the flaw.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Luca, princess and arguably rightful ruler of the empire, has been sent to deal with local disturbances. I had less sympathy for her and her inability, at times, to empathize with the colony she’d come to. Having a disabled protagonist who was quite functional despite the condition that made walking or dancing difficult was a plus, but her self-centeredness was a bit off-putting. She can dress it up as beneficial to all her subjects, but those claims felt hollow.

It made Luca wonder what new boundaries people would have to make in the future—how they would call themselves, what they would find to separate themselves from each other.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It’s an absorbing story, full of devious actors. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and the otherness that Touraine always feels is convincing and heart-rending. There’s also a lot of questioning about who is responsible for what and how to handle competing priorities and loyalties. There are some occasional abrupt shifts in pace, and times when the motivations for actions seem less than convincing. The mood is grim most of the time.

People like you and me have to remind people like her the difference between what’s important and what’s possible.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

As well as the unusual storyline, The Unbroken features a cast that’s overwhelmingly female. They all have their own quirks and personalities, and almost all of them are strong (and fragile) in unique ways. Lesbian relationships are taken as a matter of course, a pleasant feature in an alternate reality.

They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Another interesting feature is that Balladaire has eliminated religion, if not by law, by a pervasive social view that it is “uncivilized.” The imperial view is in opposition to the religious nature of most of the subject countries, although the religions portrayed remind me more of the contractual types of religion (do this for me and I’ll do that for you) rather than any mystical-type connection.

Magic was a tool, perhaps even a weapon. Religion was folly dressed as hope.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It takes a while for any fantasy aspect (other than an imagined reality) to appear, and it may be too limited for some fantasy junkies. But I found it a compelling, if at times disturbing, read.


Spotlight: Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Pages: 413

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Interwar spy novel

Book excerpt

Summer 1928

It all began at a garden party in a leafy provincial suburb. ‘Don’t dawdle, dear,’ called Mrs Gray, hurrying ahead along the front path.

Minnie sighed as she shut the wooden gate then followed her mother round the side of the white-painted mansion with reluctant footsteps. They passed beneath an arch of tumbling pink roses and out onto a sunny terrace overlooking a rolling expanse of lawn dotted with people and stalls selling home- made jam and baked goods.

From here she surveyed the busy gathering with dismay. There were a few people she recognized, but they were mostly her mother’s friends, middle-aged women in frumpy hats and floral frocks, some with their husbands in tow. At twenty-one, it seemed that Minnie was the youngest person here. How she wished she’d never come.

‘Look, there’s Sarah Bowden. Come on, Minnie!’ Mrs Gray, bright-eyed and purposeful, propelled her daughter across the grass to where a willowy lady in navy was queuing by a snowy canopy where teas were being served.

‘Betty darling,’ Sarah Bowden cried in welcome, carmine lips curving in her foxy face. ‘And Minnie. So sweet of you to keep your mother company. I’m here on my own. Ernest had a bowls match, wretched man.’

‘I’m not being sweet, Mrs Bowden, there was nothing else to do.’ Minnie had never warmed to beady-eyed Mrs Bowden. ‘Tennis was called off and Mother wouldn’t leave me moping at home, would you, Mother?’

‘Really, Minnie,’ her mother muttered. ‘Do you have to be so honest? I’m sorry, Sarah, sometimes I don’t know what to do with her.’

‘Poor dear Minnie,’ Mrs Bowden murmured, patting Minnie’s arm. ‘It won’t be much fun for her here.’ She glanced around and her voice dropped. ‘Honestly, Betty, look at the men. The ones that aren’t old and married are hardly a young girl’s dream.’

Mrs Gray scanned the crowd with a predator’s eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said briskly, ‘there are one or two nice younger ones. Don’t slouch, Minnie. It’s not attractive.’

They took their turn at the rows of white crockery and there was a pause while they collected cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Minnie slid a slab of warm marble cake onto her saucer then licked her fingers, causing her mother to frown.

Mrs Bowden narrowed her eyes and whispered above the rattle of cups, ‘Did you hear that Mr Chamberlain himself is expected?’

Mrs Gray’s expression clouded. ‘His wife didn’t mention it when I saw her at last week’s committee meeting.’

‘Didn’t she?’ Mrs Bowden said happily. ‘There are rumours, you know, that he’s to switch to our constituency in the next election to be sure of a good majority.’

‘I know about that. Minnie, I’ve told you how important Mr Chamberlain is becoming in the House of Commons. It would be something for you to meet him.’

‘If you say so,’ Minnie murmured, long bored by the sub- ject of the Chamberlains, though secretly she supposed that encountering Neville Chamberlain would be special. Not only was he one of Birmingham’s MPs, but he was the son of the renowned Victorian statesman Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Now what was wrong? Her mother was inspecting her in a critical manner. My hair, probably. Minnie touched a hand to her new blonde crop and worried whether the style suited her.


Love, healing, and betrayal

Blood and Chaos by Nicole Sallak Anderson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tragic tale soaked in mysticism and warfare set in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Literary Wanderlust

Series: Song of the King’s Heart

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical fantasy

From the publisher: Prince Ankhmakis has left his beloved Natasa for war and treacherous obstacles block his path to becoming Egypt’s last native king. He is the warrior that the men revere, and his orders are followed without question. He is strong and powerful with Natasa on his side, and the fear that breeds in those around him is more dangerous to Ankhmakis than the swords of the Greeks.

The second book in a trilogy, Blood and Chaos almost succeeds as a standalone. The pacing and story is more compelling than the first entry in the series, Origins, and if it had not stopped at point where it feels incomplete, I’d readily champion it as a very good standalone.

There was music and revelry in the distance—the sounds of men letting go of the horrors of battle.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

I’m still not convinced a reader wouldn’t be able to start with this volume, though. The reasons for Hugronaphor’s rebellion against the Ptolemaic pharaoh Philopator might be hazy, as the story begins after the fight for independence has begun, but the story is focused far more on the internal politics of Hugronaphor’s court than on the war itself. There is a good deal of backstory that would enrich a reader’s understanding of some of the characters’ motivations, but those motivations still are recapped in this installment.

The divine pair is what humanity longs for. no man should have to settle for less.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

Nicole Sallak Anderson generally does a convincing job summoning up a culture of which little is known, despite the occasional word choice that sounds a little too modern and pulls me out of the world she’s woven. The Egypt of the Ptolemaic pharaohs began in 305 BCE with the division of Alexander the Great’s empire among four of his generals. Ptolemy Philopator was the fourth of these pharaohs, and many would argue he was the beginning of the decline of the Ptolemaic kingdom. He was also the first of the Ptolemies to have his heir borne by his sister-wife.

The world yearns for a warrior to save us, and the gods send us a little, half-breed girl. Alas, even the gods can be wrong about these things.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The historic accounts of what has been called the Great Revolt of the Egyptians or the Great Theban Revolt are sparse, and the causes just as hazy in reality. The immorality of Philopator was mentioned in old sources, but probably didn’t have much affect on most Egyptian citizens. The Greeks were definitely the elite, but hellenized Egyptians could find jobs within the Ptolemaic bureaucracy. Egypt was under foreign rule, but it had been for the majority of the preceding 320 years, when Persia first conquered Egypt, with the exception of a period of 61 years well over a hundred years prior to the period of this novel

It is a sin against the goddess to govern a woman’s sexuality…It is wrong to buy women to be sex slaves and concubines…but to force a priestess of Isis to pair with a man she doesn’t love is a sin.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

However, Anderson does a good job of elaborating on what is there to make a convincing world. She recreates two primary sects, that of Isis and Set, representing love and chaos respectively, and gives each an extensive belief system. She recreates a plausible court, with many rivalries and jealousies.

You see the world different than I do. I don’t try to change you, so stop trying to change me.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The two protagonists, Ankhmakis and Natasa, are well-developed and easy to relate to, and the villains are easy to hate. There are fewer prolonged scenes of graphic sex between Ankhmakis and Natasa in this volume, which I preferred, focusing more of the spiritual connection between them outside of the physical relationship. The petulant sister-wife of Ankhmakis (a purely political union) is particularly well done, as is Eleni, Natasa’s sister, who exudes all the outraged naivete of a tweenie.

Like me, you have no power here. You serve by command of the pharaoh, and we are objects to these people. Nothing more.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

One minor character that really stands out to me is the Ethiopian general who arrives as an ally, Khaleme. As a moral outsider, he seems to have the most clear-eyed view of what is going wrong in the court, and doesn’t hesitate to call them out.

There are many types of people in the world, and each has a right to live. My men will not kill civilians.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

There is a fantastic element to these novels as well: astral travel, telepathy, psychic attacks, and precognition all make appearances. These elements are all linked to the religions of those exercising these powers, and abilities seem predicated more on discipline and practice than mere talent, although the most powerful are also those with a priestly lineage.

The world behind the world is the origin of every action on Earth. We can approach it with humility, ask to be a part of it, and co-create with the divine.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

All in all, this is an absorbing visit to a little-known and rarely discussed period of Egyptian history, and I recommend checking out this installment in the tragedy of Ankmakis.


More things in heaven and earth

A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions by J.A. Nelson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read something inspired by Hamlet, but from his best friend’s POV and set in the aftermath of Hamlet’s actions.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 416

Publisher: Quill Point Press

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

16th century Europe alt-hist


Giveaway

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From the publisher: Surrounded by the bodies of slain monarchs, a dying prince extracts a promise from his friend, Horatio: “Tell my story.” Rival kings of warring nations strive to lay claim to the throne, now vacant, but what will happen to the people who live there, at Helsingør’s Krogen Castle? How will Horatio preserve his honor and the prince’s legacy while surviving this murderous kingdom and the men who would rule it?

It will probably seem odd that I chose to read this book when I have never been a big fan of Hamlet. There are amazing soliloquies within the play, including the arguably best known in the English language, “To be or not to be.” I’ve taken multiple courses that have included study of the play. But I’ve never liked the eponymous “hero.”

Even the most steadfast, loyal friend could never make Hamlet walk a straight, logical line. No one could have saved him from himself, or from fate.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

So I chose this book out of a hope that I’d find something or someone more likable. I’m unchanged in my views on Hamlet; I still don’t like the guy. But starting with the survivors when the curtain fell and the reality of a rather convoluted path to the bodies all over the room which had to be explained to the new ruler was appealing.

“Pah. You know nothing about the games between a court and a new king taking his enemy’s throne. You have never seen cats claw the dogs, dogs chew the rats.”

“I’ve seen much of that. You know nothing of academia.”

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

J.A. Nelson has taken on an audacious task in retelling a play so familiar to so many, and she has chosen language that usually works to convey an echo of the Shakespearean pentameter. Occasionally, though, I found it seemed to push over the top, resulting in a reaction counter to the intent. The fact that it didn’t happen frequently is a testament to the skill with which Nelson told the story.

Failure’s cursed tendrils squeezed my heart. My legs were as weak as sea froth. Grief burrowed deeper, doubling its possession of me.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Using Hamlet’s bestie, Horatio, as the protagonist works well. It’s been a while since I last read or saw Hamlet (see “not a fan” above), but IIRC, Horatio is pretty much just a straight man for Hamlet, so it was he was a good vehicle for this expansion. Nelson does a nice job of adding backstory, character arc, and new characters to this post-Hamlet scenario. Nelson also places the story of Hamlet around 1513, with the main action of the book occurring thereafter.

Soon the massive table was crowded with disgorged boxes, their brittle organs extracted, examined, and discarded.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

This is where the alt-history part comes in. Although the play was performed as if it occurred around that time, the legend of Hamlet is much older, and there’s much debate about the extent to which Hamlet came directly from the Gesta Danorum or through other sources. In the Gesta Danorum, the Hamlet character is Amleth of Jutland, and recorded prior to the 13th century. So to make the Hamlet story actually occur in Helsingor, Zealand, Denmark, in the early 16th century, Nelson takes some interesting liberties with the actual history, as the thrones of Denmark and Norway were held by the same person both before and after 1513, Hans and then Christian II.

Reynaldo looked every bit the illegitimate spawn of a wasp and an ass. But he was not stupid.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Nelson does address that, albeit a little briefly, in her Author’s Note, acknowledging that those plot points do fall outside what facts are known. However, this alternative history doesn’t do too much violence to the real one, as Nelson chooses many actual historical circumstances to weave into her tale, giving it a high degree of verisimilitude.

A shrinking world expanding with idiots.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

However, for all the objective things right with this book, it still fell a little flat with me. I had difficulty in the beginning, when the main plot points of Hamlet are rehashed with my concomitant annoyance at Hamlet. Once that was over, I felt like things picked up a bit, but there were various plot points that I didn’t quite buy, mostly the speed at which relationships developed (positive and negative) and Horatio’s propensity for mastering skills at an unreasonably fast pace. I know time is collapsed in fiction, and I generally can overlook that compression, but there are times where the perceived time still doesn’t gel, usually when those items develop at a different pace than the other aspects of the story.

Chivalry’s stiff etiquette and battery of skills were not taught to commoners. I did not care for the challenge of honesty that Margrete favored, but I would apprentice in knighthood if that meant I could pursue her.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

If you’re a Hamlet fan, you’ll probably find more to like than I. Nelson displays considerable skill in how she crafts the language so that it resonates with Hamlet without mimicking it, and aficionados of the Bard should include it in their reading.


Fighting the man, 1913 style

Big 4+ review: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

r/suggestmeabook: I want a meticulously told history of the 1913 copper mine strike in Calumet, Michigan, focusing on the woman called the American Joan of Arc.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 339

Publisher: Atria

Progessive era historical fiction

From the publisher: In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

Mary Doria Russell has a wonderful afterward explaining what is and isn’t historically accurate, which I always appreciate, and it reinforced my initial impression that this was a meticulously researched book. On the spectrum from narrative history to costume drama, this would be more weighted toward the historical, but it doesn’t shade into feeling like docudrama as some novels can.

They believed their daddies’ wealth was ordained by God and nature, and the Supreme Court told them they were right. A man who accepted a job was servant to a master, that’s what the court said. If he took a wage, he could be treated any way that master pleased.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Perhaps that’s because Russell does a great job of making Anna and her main assistant, Eva, so approachable and sympathetic. Here is a woman who takes on a monumental challenge: organizing the women of a copper mining town, where everything is owned or controlled by the mining company. Yet she’s fully human and flawed—she never comes off as someone who is somehow divinely appointed or a creature unlike us mere mortals.

Women who now refuse to tell another generation of children, This is all you can hope for. This is all your labor is worth. This is all your lives are worth.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Given that there’s very little about Annie in her own words, Russell has done a great job of constructing a believable person from the facts known about her: she was approximately six feet tall and reached that height early, her father was also a copper miner who was originally from Slovenia, her parents died when she was young, and she married a 30-year-old man when she was 19. Extrapolating that mix in the context of the period, and she’s come up with a convincing version of this young woman.

With her big plans and her unshakable determination, her beautiful smile and her relentless bustling, young Mrs. Clements is indeed convinced that far-away shareholders can be shamed into acting decently. You have to love that, he thinks. She hasn’t been beaten down yet. She’s not cynical.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

There are many characters that are only part of the story for short sections, but are memorable, particularly the governor and the judge he sends to try to settle the strike. Their interactions were amusing and showed that not all of the elite was on the side of the corporation. Another is the photographer, Michael Sweeney, who is fictional.

He is deeply suspicious of those who are hostile to compromise of any kind. Given his own conversation with James MacNaughton, he is inclined to be sympathetic toward the frustration such a man’s employees might feel.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

And because of him and the role of photography in the book, I decided to look through historical photos to put in the banner and kind of lost my mind. Many aren’t dated, but are from the general period. Any photo specifically strike-oriented is from the 1913 strike. The photo with the women in black? The one carrying the big American flag is Annie. The office and portrait? MacNaughton. If you want to see more relevant photos, the best source I found was the Copper Country Historical Images Database from Michigan Tech.

The character that gave me some pause was the CEO of the copper company, James MacNaughton. He’s just completely irredeemable. However, in the author’s note, Russell does a good job of explaining that he really was that guy. His attitudes about his immigrant workers and his complete indignation about their needs, though, I’ve heard echoed by smallish business owners (in the low seven figures) about other racial groups—or millennials, so those guys are still around.

The Finns are the worst. And the Slavs! Croats and Slovenians. Anarchists, half of them. Socialists. Europe is gleefully exporting its wretched refuse to America. How long, he wonders, before the entire American workforce is undermined and replaced by nihilists and hoodlums?

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

From time to time, it does start sounding like an apologetic for the strikers, which was fine with me because I found all of it stirring and inspirational. However, my personal belief is that more people should realize just how much exploitation of workers there was (and still is) without government or union intervention, so it might be good for those who tend to discount the value of either to offset unbridled capitalism. There’s probably more danger of people thinking that’s all in the past. The efforts to discredit strikers and other people protesting oppression are still in use today.

Capital starts things, but labor brings them into the world. Our men wouldn’t have jobs without the capitalists but without labor, capital is stillborn, dead in the womb. Without labor, there is no return on investments.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

It’s only a small note in the book, but I was really taken with the reference to Bread and Roses. I’d seen it before in some reference to a worker’s movement in England, but it hit me harder the way that Russell described Annie’s interpretation of the demand. It’s easy to gloss over the phrase, but it’s pretty profound in terms of how those in power view what labor is entitled to versus what labor believes it has earned. The contrast between the lives of those who profit by underpaid labor, with their frivolities, and the bare existence of those workers makes it clear that the powerful somehow feel their lives are worth more and that it is good and just that the cards are stacked in their favor.

You aren’t on strike so your children can have a better life, you’re fighting so that they can have a good life! You aren’t on strike for a better wage, you’re fighting for a good wage—a living wage! You aren’t on strike for less danger in the pits, you’re fighting for safe working conditions!

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

All in all, I quite enjoyed the thoughtful reconstruction of historical figures, some with only scant evidence of their personalities, particularly Annie Clements/Anna Clemenc, whom history should not have forgotten.


Even a Gilded Age heiress can’t always have what she wants

The Heiress Gets a Duke by Harper St. George

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a steamy Gilded Age romance between an unwilling, independent American heiress and a reluctant, flat broke English Duke.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 320

Publisher: Berkley

Series: Gilded Age Heiresses

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Gilded Age/Victorian romance

Giveaway

Enter to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on February 19th. You must be 18 or older to enter: The Heiress Gets a Duke.

From the publisher: American heiress August Crenshaw has aspirations. But unlike her peers, it isn’t some stuffy British Lord she wants wrapped around her finger–it’s Crenshaw Iron Works, the family business. When it’s clear that August’s outrageously progressive ways render her unsuitable for a respectable match, her parents offer up her younger sister to the highest entitled bidder instead.

If you love the chase in a romance with a good dose of sexual tension, this is your book. Harper St. George creates two strong-minded characters with different goals and does a pretty good job of not moving the constant mistaken interpretation of each other’s actions over the line into the ridiculous or annoying.

New York Society thrived on financial and social matches made in marriage, and one unwilling bride wasn’t going to change anything. A hundred unwilling brides wouldn’t change anything.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

There are some really nice touches to this overall predictable story (given the title, the outcome isn’t going to be much of a surprise). There are the chapter epigraphs with quotes from writers of the era (and before), such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Disraeli.

The sharp scent of gin, sweat, and cheap cigarette smoke tinged the air. People yelled to be heard over the cacophony of a hundred different conversation.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Her detailed descriptions evoke everything from crowded and malodorous Whitechapel to the decaying grandeur of an English country house to the perfumed press of a London Season event. I’m generally not that attuned to descriptions of fashion, but St. George did a great job of describing a dress that would shock her milieu in a way that I could both envision the dress and understand the reaction.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on her mood, which changed from one minute to the next, the gown that had been delivered to their townhome last week had been far more scandalously cut than she had realized.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

The two protagonists, August (I so wanted to make it Augusta) Crenshaw and Evan Sterling, the Duke of Rothschild (I also tended to giggle at this title choice) are generally likable. Their interactions are enjoyable—the fighting couple that falls in love that can be traced back at least to The Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing. August is modern enough for us to root for but still has the disadvantages of being a woman in the latter half of the 19th century; Evan is self-aware enough that his privileged position doesn’t alienate us.

August was the bluestocking. The one who, while pretty enough, would only marry when she could find a man who could overlook her many shortcomings. She was too opinionated. Too intelligent. Too mannish.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

What was more interesting to me was the other relationships these two had: August’s protective relationship with her little sister, who’s more astute than she gives her credit for; everyone’s relationship with August’s mother, an American Mrs. Bennet; Evan’s feelings about his brother and father; and the sweet relationship of Evan with his mother and sisters.

Bloody hell, this was to be his mother-in-law. Visions of endless holidays filled with her constant boasting stretched out before him. Perhaps bankruptcy would be worth it to avoid that fate.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

Of all of them, the most intriguing is that of August and her father. He has allowed her to be a part of his business, keeping books and evaluating financial opportunities. She feels valued to him as a result, and this burgeoning relationship with Evan complicates August’s relationship with her father in unexpected ways. This was, to me, the emotional core of the book, and it lifts this romance out of the humdrum.

My lord, although Miss Crenshaw is my daughter, she is also a trusted employee of Crenshaw Iron Works. I trust her discretion and her advice implicitly. you did say that this was a business issue?

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

If you’re not a fan of explicit sex scenes, there will be quite a few bits you’ll have to flip past, but the rest of the book makes it worthwhile. if you do like them, you should find plenty here to like.

As he held it tight, something had become clear to him. He wanted to win her on his own merit. He wanted her to choose him. And, more importantly, he did not want to hurt her.

Harper St. George, The Heiress Gets a Duke

All in all, The Heiress Gets a Duke is an exemplary version of the love/hate romance with the commoner and a Duke, so if that’s a read you enjoy, put this one on your to-be-read list.


Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.