TomahawkPoe.jpgIn Print (Book Reviews and Published Pieces)

 

Thursday
Mar292007

The Conjurer by Cordelia Frances Biddle

Conjurer.jpgFebruary 22, 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer
Mystery opens underbelly of Philadelphia society, 1842

The Conjurer
By Cordelia Frances Biddle
Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's. 306 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

Cordelia Frances Biddle's new mystery, The Conjurer, is set in Philadelphia in 1842. The protagonist, Martha Beale, is a wealthy daughter of high society whose father has gone missing in mysterious circumstances. Did he accidentally fall into the frigid, raging currents of the Schuylkill River? Or was he pushed? Is he even dead? Martha, until now sheltered by her imposing father from the corrupting ways of the world, must learn the truth. In doing so, she discovers the men of her blueblood society operate as a kind of secret organization, plotting to not only control their wives and children, but also to keep hidden the inner-workings of their financial empires. With the help of Thomas Kelman, the city official assigned to investigate her father's disappearance, Martha pulls back the curtain and sees not just a hapless want-to-be wizard, but something much worse.

Biddle pays a great deal of attention to the manners and mores of her uppercrust characters. She delineates how their social practices shape their behavior, as well as the very philosophies by which they live, from the correct color of a gown for a particular season or occasion to the correct room in which one should receive particular visitors. I was a little leery that I had stumbled into one of those cozy mysteries written for little old ladies who live in quaint country cottages (with several cats). But the action of the novel soon took a decidedly grim turn.

Kelman, the investigator, is also on the trail of a serial killer who has been murdering child prostitutes in the city's brothels. The conjurer of the title, Eusapio Paladino, seems to be channeling the victims while he performs séances at dinner parties of wealthy citizens (during which he also lures the wives of his high society patrons to become his mistresses). Indeed, all of Biddle's characters have secret inner-lives that chafe against the severe restraints with which their society has bound them. Most of them acquiesce. Some, like Martha, seek to break free. And some twist their desires into murderous impulses that trail them like shadows through the murky alleyways of the city at night.

The 1840s in Philadelphia were rife with tumult and strife, economic crises, crusading battles for labor improvements, gang warfare, riots aplenty, and the new "penny press" catering to the lurid scandals of the day. One newspaperman of the time, George Lippard, wrote a scathing novel, The Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk-Hall, in which the leading citizens of Philadelphia meet in an old mansion to drink, seduce innocent young women and murder their rivals. Lippard's indictment of the city was so popular it became the bestselling novel in the United States until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Philadelphia was bursting with a raw, urban energy, a newborn giant in the first day of the new American Republic. Biddle successfully taps into this energy in her novel.

I have always been surprised that there were not more historical mysteries set in Philadelphia, it being such rich ground for the machinations and murder that make up the genre. A few years ago, Mark Graham wrote some novels set in the 1870s in which a police inspector solves the unbrotherly crimes of Philadelphia, but this series ended after only three excellently written books (the last, The Black Maria, won an Edgar Award). Biddle also successfully uses 19th century Philadelphia, mining the landscape for the kinds of jewels that illuminate a good mystery, and shaping characters that ring true to the elements of their creation. The Conjurer is a worthy inclusion in the genre and I hope there are many more Martha Beale mysteries to come.

Thursday
Mar292007

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

February 4, 2007   Philadelphia InquirerBookofLostThings.jpg

A boy's dark story of magic

The Book of Lost Things

by John Connolly

Atria, 339 pp.


Reviewed by Edward Pettit

England. 1939. Twelve-year old David's mother has just died. Throughout her illness, David would sit by her bedside and read aloud to her from the very books she read to him as a small child— fairy tales, ancient myths, knightly romances. David's mother tells him that stories are alive, but only in their telling. Stories

lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.

After his mother dies, David begins to have panic attacks (fainting spells), which increase when his father meets and marries another woman, Rose. David is desperately anxious to rid his life of his new stepmother and, especially, his new baby brother. But another curious thing begins to afflict David: his books talk to him, sometimes in a whispering murmur, sometimes in a cacophonous shouting, each book vying to be heard over the next one on the shelf. Then the Crooked Man shows up and so begins David's hellish coming of age in John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things.

This may all sound like some Harry Potter-like tale of wizards and magic, the boy with secret abilities who has to overcome the forces of darkness and discover the healing power of a family's love. However, Connolly has not written a book for children (Pace, all you adult Potter readers). The simple, folktale cadences of his prose in the opening chapters had me thinking I would share this book with my young children, but as the book progressed, David's experiences become darker in both deed and word. The structure of the novel is not unlike Dante's descent into the circles of hell, each more gruesome than the next. This was not a bedtime storybook.

Not only are the inhabitants of Britain under the duress of Nazi-bombing raids, but David is propelled into another world of even greater dangers. Over a chasm crossed only by a troll-guarded bridge, harpies circle, waiting to pluck unwary travellers with their sharp talons and carry them off to dank caves to be eaten. Wolves walk on two legs and speak as people, but their wolf-hunger still drives them. The culmination of the novel contains a trip through a chamber of horrors that had me cringing and rushing to finish.

In the unexpurgated tales of the Brothers Grimm, hard punishment and death is often meted out to malefactors. An evil queen is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance herself to death (Snow White). Bad stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by pigeons (Cinderella). A woodsman cuts open a wolf's stomach to release the already eaten little girl and her grandmother (Little Red Cap). Connolly honors these traditional elements, but still takes them to another level. The fairy-tale land David finds himself in is no Disney-ized holiday in which the good are rewarded, the bad punished and justice reigns. This is the world of the Crooked Man in which the tales of David's memory have been horribly twisted for subversive purposes and David must navigate their plots to find his way back home.

Amongst all the terror-inducing twists Connolly has added to the world of fairy tales, one is actually uproariously funny in an absurdist way. While walking down a road David encounters the seven dwarfs of Snow White fame. The dwarfs accost David and subject him to a Marxist lecture on the collectivization of labor and the oppression of the working class. It turns out that Snow White is an enormously fat glutton and the dwarfs would like nothing better than to get her off their much abused hands. This episode comes fairly early in the novel and its humor, absurd though it is, seems out of place in this world, as if Monty Python has just dropped in on the proceedings. But it is all so clever and so funny that I get the feeling that Connolly just couldn't delete it. But this is a small caveat in a novel well-executed and well-written.

At it's heart, The Book of Lost Things is a coming of age tale. The innocence of childhood is tested and David must learn to overcome his fears. But the author asks much deeper questions of his reader, questions that challenge the very concept of "childhood innocence." What of the jealousies and desires of children? Are children corrupted as they grow older? Can maturation itself be labeled corruption? Is innocence something achieved or is it innate, a pure center at the heart of every child? In subverting fairy stories into tales of horror, Connolly has created a framework that compliments David's own maturation. David must relearn the stories to find his way, but he must also come to grips with his own inner-demons. The Book of Lost Things is an intense and satisfying book for the dark nights of winter.

Thursday
Mar292007

Ladies of Grace by Clarke / Secret Commonwealth by Kirk

Ladies of Grace.jpgJanuary 7, 2007  Philadelphia Inquirer

Faerie lore befitting science and fantasy

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury. 224 pp.
The Secret Commonwealth of
Elves, Fauns and Fairies

By Robert Kirk
NYRB Classics. 144 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

In Susanna Clarke's 2004 bestselling debut novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell the Faerie realm of ye olde England resurfaces to battle the gentlemen-magicians of the title and haunt the destinies of characters who themselves seemed to have walked across the bookshelf from the regency novels of Jane Austen. This curious hybrid, fantasy amid drawing rooms and magic on the fields of the Napoleonic wars, served that novel admirably and Clarke's latest book, The Ladies of Grace Adieu shares the same milieu of her first novel. However, Ladies is not a novel, but rather a collection of eight short stories that were mostly published in fantasy anthologies in the years before Jonathan Strange came to fruition.

Tying together the eight stories is another conceit of Jonathan Strange, a faux scholarship of Faerie lore. Ladies begins with an introduction by a professor of Sidhe studies at Aberdeen University (sidhe, pronounced like the pronoun she, is a Gaelic word that has come to refer to the elves and faeries of ancient folklore) who also provides footnotes here and there throughout the collection. While Jonathan Strange seemed at times burdened by its footnotes, as if their very length and bulk were threatening to take over the novel, the scholarly apparatus to Ladies is very unobtrusive, just a light touch to enliven the atmosphere. If you are one of those readers captivated by the Tolkien-like inventions of the stories that lurk behind the one you are reading, of invented books that serve to illuminate what is itself an invented book (I confess, I am thoroughly of that camp), then you will find the stories of Ladies a delightful accompaniment to Clarke's first novel, but not the satisfying experience that a new novel would hopefully bring.

Most of the stories are set in 19th century England, the title story even includes the character Jonathan Strange in a supporting role. A couple are set in the 16th and 17th centuries and one is a medieval folktale of John Uskglass, the once and future Raven King who bridges the realms of both faeries and humans. As a whole, the collection started a little slowly for me, but as I read on the flow of themes began to seduce me like a faerie charm, binding me ever more tightly, one slight band at a time. The humans in Clarke's tales are forever threatened by an unknowable world that coexists with their own. Sometimes they clash with a kind of devilish humor, like Shakespeare's Puck pulling the stools out from under unsuspecting milkmaids. Sometimes the clash is malevolent in nature and pain and death are at stake. Through it all, Clarke writes with witty aplomb. The threats seem real, but let's have another cake with our tea before we face wrack and ruin.

If the stories of Ladies serve to add more flavor to the world of Jonathan Strange (as if the SecretCommonwealth.jpgfootnotes finally did get their own book), then another recent book will also fit the bill, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Faeries by Robert Kirk. But Secret Commonwealth is no invention of Susanna Clarke, an imagined book to flesh out the backstory of her novel. Robert Kirk was an Episcopalian minister in the Scottish Highlands during the late 17th century who made a serious study of the folklore of his parishioners. The extended essay was left as a manuscript at his death and published in the 18th century and in the 19th by both Sir Walter Scott and Andrew Lang.

A slim quarto-sized book (like a paperback novel in boards) and less than a hundred pages of text, this New York Review of Books edition is the first in over a hundred years and contains a well-written introduction and endnotes by Marina Warner. Also included is Kirk's own glossary of "difficult words," in which we learn the 17th century meanings of words such as adscititious, defaecat, lychnobious and noctambulo. This is the kind of arcana that makes Clarke's stories and novels so charming, but here it's the real deal, not playful pseudo-scholarship. Sometimes Kirk's syntax can be a bit archaic. I found myself backtracking at times, trying to find the modifier of a pronoun, but these kind of disruptions were few and far between and disappeared once well into the text.

Some of the tales recounted and information compiled will be familiar to readers of Clarke, as well. Kirk recounts the way young, nursing mothers are abducted to feed the children of Faerie, which is part of the plot to one story in Clarke's Ladies. And Kirk's overall description of what he calls "the subterranean (and for the most part) invisible people" is a race mysterious, silent and sullen, not to be crossed, but sometimes outwitted. In her introduction Warner writes, "Phrase after phrase in Kirk's short text hangs between metaphor and reality, science and fantasy, learning and lore with irresolvable and often sinister ambiguity." This could be a blurb on the dustjacket of Clarke's books, but the fascination of its reality as a book of true scholarship adds heft to its charm. If you're looking for a book to tide you over until Clarke's next novel is ready for publication, her Ladies of Grace Adieu will fit the bill, but so too will Kirk's Secret Commonwealth.

Thursday
Mar292007

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier

October 22, 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer ThirteenMoons.jpg

'Cold Mountain' author fails in his second novel

After a strong opening, it's hard work to reach the end.

Thirteen Moons
By Charles Frazier

Random House. 422 pp. $26.95

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

In 1997, Charles Frazier's debut novel, Cold Mountain, became a runaway hit - eventually selling more than four million copies - and a surprise winner of the National Book Award, beating out Don DeLillo's much-lauded Underworld.

I was one of those completely captivated by Frazier's Homeric tale of a Confederate soldier making his way back home to be with the woman he loves. The prose is rich, the characters deeply and intricately etched. The love story is woven slowly, each chapter alternating between the two lovers' stories, until the triumphant and tragic finale.

Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, has a beautifully rendered opening that pulled me in immediately and gave me high hopes that it would be as rewarding a reading experience as Cold Mountain: "There is no scatheless rapture. Love and time put me in this condition. I am leaving soon for the Nightland, where all the ghosts of men and animals yearn to travel."

But Thirteen Moons falls far short of the promise Frazier showed with Cold Mountain. Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two, but there are enough points of connection between them. Both novels are, fundamentally, love stories. Both are deeply in tune with the natural landscape of their worlds. Both use classic texts of literature as inspiration. Cold Mountain is a retelling of The Odyssey. Thirteen Moons seems to take as its inspiration the medieval romances of Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere.

Cold Mountain is pointedly analogous to Homer's epic, with Frazier creating direct corollaries to Odysseus' adventures and Penelope's plights. We are missing only a Telemachus. Thirteen Moons, however, is only tangentially related to the stories of medieval lovers. There doesn't seem to be a specific ur-text that Frazier has used as a template. Will Cooper, the narrator, makes reference to several romances. Just two pages in, he is reading Chrétien de Troye's The Knight and the Cart, in which Lancelot ignominiously comes to the rescue of Guinevere riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart. As the novel continues, we are treated to many more references - to Malory's Morte Darthur and Cervantes' Don Quixote - as Cooper relates his life story in episodic fashion.

Cooper is a 90-year-old white man who was willingly adopted by a Cherokee chief as a teenager after his family sold him into indentured servitude at a trading post. Cooper's exploits lead him to triumph in politics and business. He amasses fortunes and loses them. He fights duels and woos women. He is lauded and deplored. He crosses paths with luminaries of his age, Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett, yet never turns his back on his adoptive tribe.

Cooper's story is reminiscent of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man, whose Cheyenne-adoptee, Jack Crabb, spins his life story at the age of 111. But Berger's "white Indian" tells tall tales, both outrageous and hilarious. Frazier's "white-Indian" is very particular about the "truth," refusing to embellish his exploits. No Quixote he, Cooper points out the falsehoods that lie behind his life's narrative. When legend becomes fact, Cooper prints the fact.

With so much promise, it is hard to fathom how Thirteen Moons falters so badly. After a few strong opening chapters, the book becomes mired in a long, meandering slog to its finish. The characters that Cooper meets in his life are never more than pasteboard-thin. The great love of his life, Claire Featherstone, is a cipher. Not only is she misunderstood by her narrator/lover, she can't really be understood by the reader, either, because Frazier hasn't fleshed her out (although he does spend a good deal of time describing her actual flesh - breasts, legs, etc.). Most important, there isn't much of a plot. The middle 300 pages of the novel are one long, tough tramp through the woods.

At one point, Will Cooper builds a magnificent home, modeled on one of the great plantation houses of Thomas Jefferson. Then he leaves it and wanders the country. Not quite aimlessly: He is on a sort of quest to find Claire. But while the knight-errant of medieval romance encounters evil knights and strange beasts, Cooper just wanders, encountering very little of interest. At this point, the narrative itself also becomes unmoored. The plot drifts rudderless across currents of print, the reader just begging for something to happen. Ultimately, nothing does. As compelling to read as Cold Mountain was, Thirteen Moons compelled me only to wish for its end.

Thursday
Mar292007

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

MeaningNight.jpgOctober 4, 2006, Philadelphia City Paper

The Meaning of Night: A Confession
By Michael Cox
W.W. Norton. 672 pp.

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

"After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper." And so begins a long descent into the mind of the murderer, Edward Glyver (aka Edward Glapthorn and several other aliases). I expected it to be like a Dickens' novel, if Dickens had written on acid. Indeed, the narrator spends a good deal of time in the sordid opium dens of London, in a drugged stupor, before being chased into the dark streets by "The Iron Master," his imagined deity. "I was used to living on the night-side of things," says Glyver. I figured this would be one of those novels that turns the Dickensian novel on its head, or more appropriately, rips open its belly to show us the reeking innards that lie beneath the smooth surface. This would be Dickens as written by Rob Zombie. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel much more conventional than that, but no less thrilling (and I don't really want Rob Zombie writing novels). 

Cox has written a neo-Victorian, gothic page-turner in the vein of the serialized sensationalist novels of the 19th century. It is a lot more akin to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White than to any Dickens novel (although the grim London and twisted machinations of Bleak House come close). The Meaning of Night borders on pastiche in its construction. The names of characters have that preposterous Victorian flare: Josiah Pluckrose, Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, and my favorite, Fordyce Jukes. There is a faux preface written by a J.J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction. The conceit of the novel is that it is a found manuscript and the text comes complete with footnotes by Antrobus (although Cox doesn't fully exploit the playful possibilities of these footnotes in the way that Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). However, all these elements never outshine his wild plot and gloriously realized settings.

The treat of the novel is that it doesn't pretend to be more than it is, a sensationalist page-turner, and it delivers on almost all counts. I have trouble giving examples of what I found most engrossing or delightful because I would not want to spoil any of the plot's intricacies. The plot is like a wicked tree in a bewitched forest, slowly wrapping its branches around an unsuspecting reader, its roots rising from the earth like tendrils to trap its victims. And best of all, the narrator is a paranoid, psychotic murderer. What more fun do you want from a book on a cold, autumnal night?