"The Harlot's Tale" by Sam Thomas

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New author Sam Thomas has introduced Lady Bridget Hodgson, a devout and determine midwife of 17th century York, to the roster of medieval and early modern sleuths in The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale. More entries are sure to follow these two, and that’s a very good thing.

Mr. Thomas uses his academic background to evoke the York milieu of the middle of the 17th century. He covers: the squalor cheek-by-jowl with the posh neighborhoods, the multitude of parish churches in a city of relatively modest population, and the importance of religious observances in everyday life. In The Harlot’s Tale especially, Mr. Thomas presents the high tension between the Puritan impulse and the more traditional Protestant sects. 

This is, in fact, one quibble I have with the narrative of Harlot’s Tale: it focuses too much on peoples’ preoccupation with how to fear and cajole their God. Yes, the theme of righteousness and hypocrisy figures very large here, but there is also such things as relief, contrast, and nuance to give a book depth and variability. And I want also to address those special features of a mystery – clues, subtle indicators of guilt or innocence, the sleuth’s deductive powers – Mr. Thomas’s handling of these needs refinement.  Lady Hodgson solves crime with her small posse, her maidservant Martha (easily the series’ most appealing character) and her nephew Will. They work cooperatively toward answers and next steps, but Lady Bridget needs to take control more and start to outthink her think tank.

For my money, there can never be too many medieval mystery series.
There is a lot of potential here for Sam Thomas’s midwife. He needs, however, to tighten up his mystery processes, and make Lady Bridget smarter than your average crimebuster.

"The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A novel featuring proximity to the historically notable from the point of view of the ordinary, complete with intrigue, a palace coup, war, and a bookbinder’s daughter made into a countess – I was attracted to this book in a major way. And yet when it was finished, I felt it still wanted something.

The Winter Palace brings us the story of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne of all the Russias in 1762. It’s told from the point of view of Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a young girl who has immigrated with her father and mother to St. Petersburg from Poland. As this young girl reaches adolescence (circa 1749 or so) she makes herself valuable to the Empress Elizabeth’s Chancellor, for her ability to gather and keep secrets. She becomes a spy for his excellency, and a pretty reliable one. In a few years, along comes Sophie, a princess in the German ruling Anhalt family, a young maiden of fourteen, who is betrothed to Empress Elizabeth’s nephew and heir-designate, Peter. The book contains the narrative of Sophie, who will take the Russian name Catherine: she arrives at court, bravely tries to get along with Peter, finally marries him, and bears a son whom the Empress takes from her to raise herself. Six months after the old Empress dies, after Peter has ruled disastrously as her heir, Catherine’s supporters confer all power on her and her reign starts in a (nearly) bloodless coup.

The novel’s take on human nature, while I’m sure wholly accurate, remains flat – it’s a monotone of grasping, secretive jealousy, and hunger for power. While I have no doubt that the court of Empress Elizabeth was exactly this way, the story could clearly do with some relief from this miserable and all-encompassing mania. Also I could have wished for a more effective description of the architecture of the palaces and temporary quarters the principals lived in, and more especially of the international and internal issues that Elizabeth is noted for having dealt with. Yes, we witness this story through the eyes of an unimportant courtier, but Barbara is an awfully quick study, and a large thinker. She would have understood the hazards for Russia contained in the surprise Anglo-Prussian treaty from the Seven Years’ War, for instance.  

However, for anyone interested in the novelization of Catherine’s early life and rise to power, this will be a must-read. The author does an excellent job of portraying the royal family in all its jealousy, vainglory, and profligacy, and doing a fully nuanced, unblinking job on Catherine herself. I would not recommend this book to readers who lack those interests, though.

"City of Women" by David R. Gillham

Saturday, June 28, 2014

An ordinary hausfrau struggles to get by in her day to day existence in wartime Berlin, her husband fighting on the Eastern Front. Then one evening a gaunt, waif-like girl, not yet twenty, lands suddenly in the seat next to her in a darkened movie theater with a plea that she tell the police a lie on her behalf. She accedes to this plea, and although she doesn’t know it yet, the hausfrau’s life has been changed forever.

In City of Women David R. Gillham captures the hardships, the bombastic propaganda, public paranoia, and violent oppression of Berlin in the winter of 1943-1944. Frau Schröder, married to an officer in the Wehrmacht, has Aryan good looks at nearly 30, and owns a pretty healthy rebellious streak. This comes from the continuous abuse and denigration heaped on her first by her mother and grandmother, and then during the story by her hateful and vituperative mother-in-law. This is the story of how Frau Schröder’s illusions peel away one by one, how as she plunges into the shadowy world of smuggling and treason her actions become more and more reckless and daring. You will turn these pages compulsively to see the plots and counter-plots, and your nerves will jump along with hers as the stakes become higher and higher.

I once again praise and marvel at debut fiction. Such mastery – it’s such a gutsy subject matter and carried off with such assurance, that I recommend this atmospheric and brilliantly-plotted novel very highly. I have not read fiction with an inside view of wartime Berlin before, but here it is, with RAF bombing raids, wartime rationing, crowded transit, and the Führer’s face everywhere. More importantly, though, we witness the moral choices these characters make in the upside-down, unreal world around them. And this is Frau Sigrid Schröder’s – and our – journey. This is brilliantly realized and highly effective. It unwinds beautifully, with new surprises and new threats – and our heroine’s ever-escalating steps to cope with all of it. Take this up, definitely.

"Possession: A Romance" by A. S. Byatt

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

At the very outset of the rich and delightful Possession: A Romance author A.S. Byatt employs quotes from two unimpeachable sources, Hawthorne and Browning. She uses Hawthorne to allude to a definition of a narrative romance, which he claims requires “a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he [the writer] would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.” The poetic quote from Browning concludes: “‘How many lies did it require to make/The portly truth you here present us with?’”

Ms. Byatt employs a wide variety of forms as she tells her “portly truth.” Set in the late 1980s (it was published in 1990), her main framework contains the story of two British scholars, Maud and Roland, who specialize in two different 19th Century British poets. They discover an astounding and game-changing correspondence between their two favorites (both fictional) – no one thought they had had anything to do with each other. Our generous author discloses the remarkable letters, goes back in time to tell the story of the two poets, and eventually supplies a kind of closure that I certainly did not see coming. She mixes in academic jealousy and competition, some skullduggery, and even though the book runs more than 540 pages, its sustained pace is remarkable.

The title itself is fodder for the author’s full and playful treatment: can two people possess each other? Can anyone possess correspondence between two strangers from the previous century? What demons or vapors possess people in fits of passion? What do academic theories possess which makes them so compelling to their adherents? Wry answers are hinted at here, some made much more plainly than others. I found that the whole works exceedingly well.

Possession engages you on many levels. If you’re at all interested in academic study of poetry, or of narrative art in general, Ms. Byatt serves up plenty of meat for you, some of it extremely mocking and funny. If you want to experience two thrown-together young people, who try navigate their feelings and tentative hopes, this is for you. If you want to experience some remarkable letters between two exceedingly literate and thoughtful people, and some very tasty Victorian-style poetry, (all Ms. Byatt’s own compositions) this is the place to be.
Possession: A Romance serves up multifarious forms of fun, and does it with an elegant, free-flowing panache. I urge you to take it up. I enjoyed my time with it thoroughly.

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