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REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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REVIEW: Harvest

harvestAuthor: Jim Crace

2013, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Thriller

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.

Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.

Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
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REVIEW: Archangel

[This collection of historical short fiction focusing on women in science is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Andrea Barrettarchangel-2013-by-andrea-barrett_original

2013, Norton

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Historical

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

Quality linked story collections are a rare breed. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Andrea Barrett’s own previous collection–and National Book Award winner–Ship Fever, Barrett’s Archangel elegantly presents separate and distinct stories that work together to build a complete work greater than the sum of its parts. I love books like this, that artfully blur the line between story collection and novel.

There are only five stories here; each is lengthy, but not quite novella length. There is no concrete unifying plot thread, although characters (or their relatives) and locations bridge the stories, which span about 40 years between the end of the 19th century up to the cusp of World War II. Instead, the stories are woven together thematically. Much like Ship Fever, Archangel focuses primarily on women characters in scientific circles, primarily naturalism, though not exclusively.
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REVIEW: The Illusion of Separateness

illusion-of-separatenessAuthor: Simon Van Booy

2013, Harper

Filed under: Literary, Historical

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

Van Booy is a distinct voice in fiction today. Unsparingly direct, his prose delivers the full emotional force of his characters’ losses and redemptions, unmediated by argot or irony. Be warned before you read The Illusion of Separateness or any of his other books: things are going to get heavy.

It’s likely no surprise that a book with a title as philosophically insistent as The Illusion of Separateness gets a little heavy. What may be surprising is what a fast read it is despite the book’s seriousness. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, moving deftly in time and perspective, Van Booy’s latest novel kept me turning pages like a good mystery.

It’s the story of a chance encounter during World War II and the chain of connections set in place by a moment of mercy. From the fields of occupied France to England, Long Island, and Los Angeles, the plot weaves its way through the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers in demonstration of the book’s epigraph, a quote from the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
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REVIEW: Red Army Red

Author: Jehanne Dubrow

2012, Triquarterly Books

Filed Under: Poetry

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 7

Just after the Soviet Union collapsed, my family hosted a member of an exchange group visiting our small New Hampshire town from the nascent Russian Federation. His name was Vladimir. I don’t remember anything about him except that he was good at darts and he loved grocery shopping. We must have taken him to Shop’n’Save every other day to pick out a new variety of juice.

I hadn’t thought about Vladimir in years, and then I came across these lines in Jehanne Dubrow’s Red Army Red, from the poem “Bag ‘N Save”:

… We walk the aisles
of twenty kinds of paper towels, the display
of Reynolds plastic wrap, the perfect smiles
that gleam from every tube of crest. We’re lost.

Dubrow’s sonnet evokes an indulgent sense of awe I now recognize in my memories of Vladimir and his friends, overwhelmed by possibilities yet reveling in being overwhelmed, like someone finding satisfaction even in a stomach ache after a long anticipated meal. I was just a little kid when he visited, but Dubrow’s poem helped flesh out a character I could only vaguely recall.

For me, this was the most powerful aspect of Red Army Red, giving a shape, an expression, in some cases even a whole gangly adolescent body, to a not so distant chapter in history. If you have any memories of the last days of the Cold War and what that meant, no matter how young you might have been then–or if your family never hosted a shopping addict from Russia–you’ll find powerful echoes in Dubrow’s personal history in verse that help make history personal.
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REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

This sprawling, Pulitzer-winning historical novel is a C4 Great Read.

Author: Michael Chabon

2000, Random House

Filed Under: Literary, Historical

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

“The Great American Novel” is a phrase that gets tossed about a lot and has, like “The American Dream,” diluted into a platitudinous insincerity suggesting a prize hiding behind a life of toil–if it was ever even more than that. It’s a romanticism: pour your heart and soul into the everyday grind of life, and eventually you’ll reach some sort of transcendence.  We all had one kid in our high school classes that was going to write the next Great American Novel, indeed maybe we were that classmate. There aren’t, of course, roughly 24,000 Great American Novels published yearly.

Indeed, there are very few books befitting of the title. There have been many great books by Americans, sure, but how many define a generation, or at least a time and place; how many raised their authors so some higher level or even immortality. Not many. You’ve got Huck Finn and Moby Dick. Then there was a proliferation of candidates that came out of the Lost Generation, but since the 1920s the case is harder and harder to make definitively.

Not many would argue against Catcher in the Rye or On the Road (indeed, I bet if you ask 10 people to name The Great American Novel at least 6 pick Kerouac’s wandering story), but it gets tougher from there. Check out this list from Wikipedia. You could make a pretty good case against most of them–Kerouac’s not on there (I agree), but Ken Kesey is (I disagree). I think Lolita is the best book of the 20th century, but Great American Novel it is not. And I bet Franzen just loves being included on this list, and while I loved Freedom, I’m not sure I could prove it is demonstrably more qualified than The Corrections.

In most all respects, Chabon’s Pulitzer effort is the very definition of what a novel should be. It is not the Great American Novel, but it is all about the elusive quest for that ideal.
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REVIEW: The Twenty-Year Death

[This ambitious mystery novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Ariel S. Winter

2012, Hard Case Crime

Filed Under: Mystery, Historical.

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 5

It’s pretty easy to write off a debut novel of 700ish pages that sets out to mimic 3 great masters of a genre. Indeed, I procrastinated for nearly a month, leaving my review copy unread while I kept pushing other books ahead of it in my never-ending reading queue. That was a mistake; this book is great.

I’m fairly new to reading mysteries, and I’m actually only familiar with one of the three authors being mimicked by Winter. He does a great job of emulating Raymond Chandler, though, and though I can’t speak to it directly, the stylization varies enough between segments that I’ve no doubt the same can be said about the mimicry of Georges Simenon and Jim Thompson.
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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes – The Army of Doctor Moreau

Author: Guy Adams

2012, Titan

Filed Under: Sci-Fi, Mystery, Historical

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 1

Of course, anyone entering into a book titled Sherlock Holmes: The Army of Doctor Moreau expecting anything deeper than “The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones” is guaranteed disappointment. So I’m going to go on the assumption you’ve looked at the cover, seen the title, the magnifying glass, and the hechtgrau dragoon with a boar’s head, and are on board with all that.

Okay, for those of you that remain, yes this is a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Adams is faithful to his source material to the point of reverence, which is great. But unfortunately the book exemplifies the reason most fan fiction isn’t published: the “what if” premise is more interesting than the story. This is not the sort of case readers usually see Holmes tackle; tell me the idea of Holmes and Watson pursuing manbeast mutants who’ve kidnapped the Prime Minister through the London sewers doesn’t sound more akin to a DuckTales episode than an hour of Masterpiece Theater.
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REVIEW: Three Weeks in December

Author: Audrey Schulman

2012, Europa Editions

Filed Under: Literary, Historical

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7

In December 1899, Jeremy, a young American engineer, takes a job overseeing the construction of a railroad through British East Africa. In December 2000, Max, a young American ethnobotanist, accepts an assignment to search for a vine with astounding medicinal potential hidden in the mountains of Rwanda.

As these dual narratives unwind side by side throughout Three Weeks in December , they produce strange and surprising echoes, both concrete and thematic. Though separated by a hundred years, the two protagonists find themselves locked in similar conflicts with social and physical circumstances. The novel proves to be as much about Jeremy and Max and their personal struggles as it is about the African continent, about its status on the world stage and the story of global development over the past century.

At the same time, Three Weeks in December is also about man-eating lions, a tribe of gorillas, murderous warlords, child soldiers, and repressed desire–which is all to say that it’s as thoughtful and well-observed as it is gripping. This is a smart book that will keep you turning pages, something you can recommend to a wide variety of readers, like, for example, the entire population of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Three Weeks in December has been selected by the Cambridge Public Library for its annual Cambridge Reads program. If, like Chamber Four, you are from the Cambridge/Boston area, you’ll definitely want to give this book a shot and then go check out this fall’s author event with Audrey Schulman at the CPL on November 8th, where she’ll discuss the genesis of her multi-faceted novel. [Also check out my interview with Audrey here.]
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REVIEW: Habibi

[This beautiful but traumatic graphic novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Craig Thompson

2011, Knopf Doubleday

Filed under: Literary, Graphic Novel, Historical

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C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9
Visual Style... 10

One of Thompson’s big influences for Habibi was obviously One Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights), a collection of stories framed by the tale of the sultan’s wife, Scheherazade, who tells the sultan a riddle or story every night, so that he will be entertained enough not to execute her. Habibi has several such frame stories, and dozens of anecdotes and parables inside them.

The outermost frame story concerns the traumatic life of a girl named Dodola. At the age of nine, Dodola’s father sells her into wifehood, which is not unlike sexual slavery. Soon, thieves attack her husband’s home and kill him, and then sell her into literal slavery. At the slave market, Dodola finds an orphan baby on the verge of death. She adopts him, or steals him, and escapes. She names him Zam, which means water. The primary storyline of Habibi revolves around the love between Zam and Dodola.

I wasn’t quite expecting this widely-hyped graphic novel to be a harrowing story about sexual trauma. Dodola spends almost the entirety of the story either selling her sexuality or having it stolen from her. There’s a lot of rape, and a lot of underage sex.

There’s also a whole lot more going on, an impressive array of nested stories and themes, including meditations on Islam and Arabic, stories from the Qur’an and the Bible, riddles, magic squares, alchemical formulas, and more. Throughout it all, Thompson’s beautiful visual style (see the gallery at the bottom of this post for examples) is nothing less than captivating.
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