Book Review: Death of an Alchemist

Product DetailsIn Death of an Alchemist, an old man—with a macaw and a cat as his only companions—is on the verge of publishing a recipe for immortality when he suddenly dies in his sleep. Given the year is 1543, fast-acting pestilence of many types abounds. Nevertheless, Bianca Goddard, daughter of an alchemist and maker of medicines, suspects he was murdered. Was it the physician whose daughter is gravely ill, the fellow alchemist, the usurer owed money, or the alchemist’s rogue son-in-law? As people begin dropping like flies, can Goddard, with the help of her old friend Meddybemps, solve the mystery? Can she understand the recipe in time to save her own husband imperiled by the sweat?

This is not a mystery for those seeking strict historical accuracy, as Lawrence states at the end of this book. Indeed, the author created an aspect of the mystery’s solution, making it difficult for the reader to puzzle out the solution before the ending. If, however, the reader is willing to suspend disbelief, Death of an Alchemist is an entertaining, Renaissance mystery with a strong, female protagonist.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: The Restoration of Otto Laird

Product DetailsThis novel is the story of Otto Laird, an elderly, physically- and mentally-failing architect who returns after a long absence to London to save one of his buildings marked for demolition. The once brilliant, now dilapidated building mirrors Laird’s own life. As a crew films Laird returning to and living in the building for several days, Laird reviews his life: his childhood hidden in a cellar during World War II, his early joy in meeting his first wife as a student in London and designing the building in question, their later troubled marriage and his troubled fatherhood as his career soared, his reconciliation with his wife, and finally his devastation by her death.

The Restoration of Otto Laird can best be described as compelling. The reader must keep reading to discover what happened in Otto’s life to cause his presently fractured state and to discover if he will live long enough to mend those fractures and save his building. The extended metaphor of the building fits beautifully in this psychologically complex, wonderfully written story. Truly, Nigel Packer has written a novel that should not be missed.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: In Other Words

Product DetailsIn Other Words is the story of Jhumpa Lahiri’s passion to learn Italian. On one level, this book addresses the mundane: Lahiri’s experience with tutors, living in Italy, writing in Italian, and grappling with the intricacies and nuances of a different language. Lahiri, however, plumbs the depths of these experiences to reveal deeper insights. For example, Lahiri writes of her alienation from both the language of her birth, Bengali, and her first adopted language, English, and the independence she finds in choosing her third language. She discusses the different assumptions she cannot escape as a Bengali-American when she speaks Bengali, English and Italian. Lahiri describes both the constriction and freedom she feels as a writer in struggling to write in Italian. Most interestingly, Lahiri wrote In Other Words in Italian but refused to translate it to English to protect her limited Italian and to prevent Lahiri from changing her work in her stronger language.

Lahiri, who has won numerous prestigious literary awards, has written a thoughtful book that provides the reader with new and surprising insights that transcend the mechanics of learning a foreign syntax.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: The Sunlit Night

Product DetailsIn The Sunlit Night, two lost souls meet by chance ninety-five miles north of the Arctic Circle on an archipelago of tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea. Twenty-one-year-old Frances has come to intern with an artist who is painting a barn in shades of yellow. Just before she arrives, Frances broke up with her boyfriend, who bluntly informed her that what she does doesn’t help anyone, and discovered her family is on the verge of disintegrating. Seventeen-year-old Yasha arrives to carry out his father’s unusual final wishes, while his long-absent mother makes a sudden reappearance in his life.

In this rather surreal environment of endless light and foreign culture, Frances and Yasha piece their lives together as they fumble toward unexpected love and an ability to accept and let go of the past. A poet, Dinerstein’s words and images are fresh, evocative, and, at times, thoroughly humorous. (It is almost impossible to forget Yasha’s mother moving through scenes, dressed as a Valkyrie, complete with huge wings). Dinerstein’s well-chosen literary allusions further deepen the reader’s enjoyment. In sum, The Sunlit Night is a well-written, original novel that is a pleasure to read.

(Originally published at San Francisco Book Review.)

Book Review: Karma’s a Killer

Product DetailsIn Karma’s a Killer, yoga instructor, Katie Davidson, agrees to teach “doga” or yoga for dogs at a local animal rescue’s fundraiser, and chaos ensues. First, the doga class goes very wrong when someone insists on bringing Alfalfa the rabbit into the class filled with dogs. Then, animal activists stage a violent protest at the event. While Katie struggles to maintain her sense of inner peace, one of the activists is found dead, and a woman named Dharma, who claims to be Katie’s long-lost mother, is arrested for the murder. With her high-strung German Shepard companion, Bella, Katie sets out to discover the truth.

Tracy Weber provides a host entertaining characters. Katie is all too human and humorous in her struggle toward enlightenment in the midst of her investigations. Even Weber’s secondary characters are memorable. For example, Dale is a former high-powered lawyer who now hides behind the persona of a goat-farmer with a southern accent. Furthermore, Weber has a refreshing eye for humorous detail from the unusually appropriate mugs doled out by the local barista to Bandit, the terrier, toilet-paper terrorist. This second installment in the Downward Dog cozy mystery series is simply fun at its best.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: The Odd Fellows Society

Product DetailsOne of Santiago Torres’ closest friends, Jasper Willoughs, dies in a fall from a Georgetown University dormitory. Although ruled a suicide, Santi, a Jesuit priest and a Gonzaga high school headmaster, knows his friend too well to believe that. Jasper, a fellow priest finishing his doctorate on the early history of the Jesuit order, had been excited to meet Santi because he had found something that would cause him to rewrite his thesis. Soon, Santi receives mysterious clues from The Odd Fellows Society, a Georgetown club for history and trivia geeks for whom Willoughs created an annual scavenger hunt. Is Santi crazy, or did Willoughs somehow threaten a merely rumored, Georgetown secret society called the Stewards? Either way, Santi becomes caught up in a real life scavenger hunt around the nation’s capital. To complicate matters, his partner is Abby Byrnes, the woman he has secretly loved for eighteen years, and his brother, with whom he shares a complicated history and no affection, is the FBI agent on the case. Can they figure out the clues before Santi becomes the next victim to die under mysterious circumstances?

The Odd Fellows Society is not timid in its scope. C.G. Barrett begins with a religious order and a rumored secret college society. From there, he conceives a plot that quickly evolves to include international implications. Furthermore, Barrett knows whereof he writes, as a former history teacher at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. This may account for the realistic feel of certain aspects of this novel. Indeed, the details of Santi’s scavenger hunt will have readers curious to visit our nation’s capital to see if aspects of the plot could be accurate. Finally, Barrett provides enough plot twists to keep even veteran armchair sleuths entertained. Overall, The Odd Fellows Society is an enjoyable read.

(Originally published in San Francisco Book Review.)

Book Review: The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Product DetailsThe Song of Hartgrove Hall is the story of Harry Fox-Talbot. In alternating chapters, the reader sees Fox as a young man and as an elderly man. The young Fox reveals the struggle of the Fox-Talbot brothers to save their dilapidated ancestral home—Hartgrove Hall—and Fox’s undeniable passion for composing music, collecting folk songs, and his brother’s girl, Edie Rose. In contrast, the elderly Fox struggles with the death of his beloved wife, his inability to compose more music, and the discovery that his young, difficult grandson has an amazing gift for music.

Natasha Solomons masterfully interleaves these two story lines to slowly reveal a complete picture of Fox’s life. Indeed, Solomons uses her choice of structure to its full advantage to tantalizes readers, but permitting them to know from the beginning, for example, who Fox marries, but making it unclear how that could have happened. Furthermore, she skillfully crafts Fox’s character so that he sounds like the same character at distinctly different ages. Ultimately, Solomons has written a delightfully entertaining novel addressing the powerful ties of home, family, love, and music—which readers will find difficult to put down.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: The Evening Spider

Product DetailsIn The Evening Spider, two young mothers live over a hundred years apart in the same house. In 2014, Abby Bernacki, a history teacher on maternity leave, begins to hear strange sounds through her baby daughter’s monitor at night. At the same time, Abby increasingly recalls her college roommate, who Abby found dead. Sensing something off in the house but afraid to talk to her husband, Abby begins to research while becoming increasingly erratic. She discovers that a criminal lawyer, his young wife, and their baby daughter lived in the house in 1887. The young wife, Frances Barnett, becomes obsessed with two famous murder trials until her husband eventually commits her to a lunatic asylum.

Told through a point of view that revolves between Abby and Frances, Emily Arsenault seamlessly weaves the diverse story lines, leaving the reader utterly intrigued until the last page. She comprehends the increased sensitivity that can accompany new motherhood and amplifies it just enough to make her main characters’ mental states understandable. Finally, Arsenault relies on the supernatural to spice her novel, but keeps it utterly grounded in the believable. Overall, this is an excellent novel that should not be missed.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: Where My Heart Used to Beat

Product DetailsRobert Hendricks’ father died at a young age, leaving Hendricks with his mother “who feared the worst” and a mentally-ill uncle. While serving in World War II, Hendricks was injured but cannot remember what occurred. At the same time, he met and lost the great love of his life, never to form another close attachment. By the novel’s opening in London in the 1980s, however, Hendricks has become a successful psychiatrist and author, although he feels a sense of disconnection. One day, Hendricks receives an unexpected invitation to visit a neurologist living on an island of France who knew Hendricks’ father and admires Hendricks’s work. This doctor encourages Hendricks delve into his past, but to what conclusion?

In Where My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks explores complex themes as Hendricks draws out his past: memory and its basis, mental illness, the value of human consciousness, role of love, and the damage inflicted on the human psyche by modern warfare are but a start. This novel is wonderfully satisfying because Faulks provides the reader with substantial food for thought in a story that will remain with the reader long after finishing the final page.

(Originally published in San Francisco Review.)

Book Review: Submission

Product DetailsIn Submission, Michel Houellebecq posits a future France in which the new Islamic party gains power through an alliance with the Socialist party. The Islamic party’s primary concerns are with education and the birth rate. The party ends compulsory education at age twelve, severely limits women’s access to higher education, and provides a “Muslim educational option” at all levels. The party also emphasizes the primacy of the family unit, even in economics, while sanctioning polygamy and veiled dress for women. Through these means, the party grows and indoctrinates new generations with the goal of gaining control of an expanded E.U.

Houellebecq, who won the 2010 Prix Goncourt, tells his story through the eyes of Francois. This middle-aged lecturer at the Sorbonne has lost any passion for living and must choose to either end his academic career or reap ample rewards by fulfilling the condition he convert to Islam. Francois wanders through this Stepford-esque political takeover while pondering the late-in-life religious conversion of the writer on whom he is an expert. A true satire, Submission both entertains and provides ample food for thought.

(Originally published in Manhattan Book Review.)