"The Quick" by Lauren Owen

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There is a rather chic monster populating – or maybe overpopulating – popular culture these days. It sucks the blood of unfortunate victims, sometimes killing, and sometimes turning the victim into another monster like itself. Lauren Owen has produced The Quick and released it into this popular culture, and taken a very different tack with her subject.

This novel presents a handful of lives affected by the unwilling conversion of a Victorian London man into one of these monsters. It deals with the pain and confusion of being thus transformed, and with the guilt, fear, and hopelessness of those he once loved. If you want some hope from these ghastly and gruesome events, you won’t find it here. The man transformed – we don’t encounter the ‘v-word’ before we’re past the first-quarter mark of the book – cannot help what he has become, and so cannot help the famished and murderous way he feels. And so his devoted sister tries to help, ultimately to no avail.

That is the story. The whole thing is fanciful, obviously, and atmospheric to a fault. It is simply a dark book from beginning to end: many scenes are nighttime scenes because of vampires’ hatred of the sun and light; even daytime scenes are smudged with 19th-century London’s famous fog. But more than that, this story completely lacks hope. There are two classes of vampire in London at the time: one is an elite club of wealthy and
powerful gentlemen, who voluntarily gave up living for the rewards of the un-dead life. The other are famous London street urchins, poor, vicious, lawless. And this is actually one of the interesting points here – there is class division and strife even among inhuman monsters.

Ultimately I can’t see my way to recommending this book. Its descriptions of the psychological and physiological changes occurring in newly-turned vampires are interesting – a different take on some popular fancies, but really that is not enough to save this book.

"City of the Sun" by Juliana Maio

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Author Juliana Maio presents us in City of the Sun with a gratifying bit of what Alan Furst calls “near history.” With vivid, urgent scenes of World War II Cairo, Ms. Maio portrays the struggle of the Jews in that city in the early days of the war. She lays over this a reasonably effective romance, which serves as the centerpiece to this novel, and the whole works rather well.

Maya Blumenthal, her father, and her brother Erik have fled Paris in 1941, having first flown from Nazi Germany before that. Cairo is an unusual refuge for displaced Jews at the time, many of whom at this point wind up in Britain. But the Blumenthals have relations in Cairo, and it is at least a good temporary shelter. But Erik isn’t just another Jewish refugee. He’s an advanced physicist whose latest paper has drawn the attention of the Americans and the Germans. Both want his expertise for their weapons programs. Enter Mickey Connolly, a brash American journalist who in the course of things is recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan into espionage, specifically the “acquisition” of young Erik Blumenthal.

Ms. Maio’s makes it her mission here to educate her readers about wartime Cairo and its pivotal role in the changed and changing Middle East. This she does through conversations of people in the know and official pronouncements and events, and she does it superbly. It was a great education for me – I had never been exposed to the history before, in spite of my own father’s service in the Army Air Corps at the time. She spices up the telling with two sure bets, an espionage thriller and a romance. And, surprisingly, she handles both with assurance, delivering believability and a couple of really magic scenes.

This is a highly diverting and educating piece, and I recommend it. It’s solid history delivered with  multi-faceted appeal.

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

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Try to inhabit the no-man’s-land of North Korea in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son without feeling an eerie gray mood take you over. Use it as an aid to perspective, when you consider the modern ills in your own home country. For Mr. Johnson has distilled the pain and degradation inflicted on North Koreans into his protagonist, an orphan who is not an orphan.

And any consideration of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book must start and end with the main character – a man who cannot even claim his own name. Mr. Johnson shows that orphans must take their names from one of the “heroes of the revolution.” As a young boy our protagonist receives the name of a state hero who committed suicide rather than let any wartime suspicion fall on him. Even though he really does have a father, he is treated as an orphan – despised and mistreated, and given all the worst, most dangerous jobs. He thus captures the whole of North Korean society.

The events of this novel illuminate the perverse and paranoid customs, particularly the caprices of the so-called criminal justice system, of this isolated country. The first two thirds feel episodic, until fate draws our hero into the life of a celebrity actress, a favorite of the dictator’s, and the story gains some clarity and momentum. The man comes to love her, and works assiduously for her safety and security. Doing that comes at tremendous cost, as the hero knows full well. Anyone wanting to escape North Korea must leave no family or
friends or associates or acquaintances behind for the state to punish, and this complicates things for everyone.

The author further complicates things by telling the last part of his story in a fluid chronology – we bounce back and forth between two periods, one after the hero is arrested the final time and one before. This strategy creates a tension in the reader – it makes her anxious to learn the fates of the main characters, and Mr. Johnson conditions us not to expect the best.

While this book has much to recommend it, it was a tough slog for me, because of the subject matter and setting. It’s a deserving Pulitzer winner, for two features: Mr. Johnson’s daring and unorthodox handling of his plot, and for his creation of a splendid, memorable hero, in whom he instills a suffering country’s best characteristics and best hopes.