Red, White, and Royal Blue: A Review

Imagine with me, for a moment, that in 2016, an intelligent, strong, Democrat woman was elected President of the United States. She has a son and a daughter, and an ex-husband who is a Senator. The country is safe. The country is happy. This woman will not drop nuclear weapons into hurricanes to see if it stops them. She is smarter than that.

Her children are likewise highly intelligent, ambitious, driven. But they are in their early twenties, and sometimes do things that this first female President might wish they didn’t.

Like fall for the Prince of England.

red white royal blueThis is the premise of my new favorite romance/alternative history/fairy tale, Red, White, and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.

Very rarely does a book come along that makes you drop everything to read it. That makes you think about it all day while you’re at work, and devour it the first thing when you get home. And even more rare is a book that is super-smart, super-sexy, and super-funny.

This book had popped up on my social media all summer. I kept seeing it recommended by Goodreads (I know I hate them, but let’s see what they have to say . . .) and on a couple of Facebook romance pages I follow. I hesitated, because frankly, I’d never read anything quite like it before, but the reviews were so great, the premise so intriguing, I finally downloaded it to my Nook – and then got totally lost in the absolutely wonderful alternate reality McQuiston has created.

Before you run out to read this, be aware:  this is a ‘gay romance.’ And I’m going on record right now as saying that I HATE that term. It’s a romance. The main characters happen to be gay. The trajectory from meetcute to happily-ever-after isn’t any different that that of a traditional straight couple. There. Soapbox Rant over. Thank you. 

So yes. The child of President Claremont who falls for the Prince of England is her son, Alexander.

When the First Children are sent to attend a royal wedding. there is a debacle with the wedding cake, which is Alex’s fault, which means that he and Prince Henry need to become BFFs in order to get the media off his back – and repair relations with Britain. From there, they are forced to attend events together, text back and forth, and friend each other on social media. But as Alex and Henry get to know each other, they find the superficial ‘for the media’ acquaintanceship deepening into a real friendship – and from there, into something a lot more.

One thing I love about this book is that the relationship feels so real. I hate – hate, hate, HATE with the fire of a thousand suns – romance novels that have the couple meeting, falling in love, and ending up in bed all in one day. There is no such thing. But Alex and Henry’s relationship evolves naturally, sweetly, depicted partly through text messages, emails, and group chats with their siblings and friends, and partly through their meet-ups – which, of course, have to be kept absolutely secret. Because it’s Election Year in America – and the media is watching. Always.

Alex and Henry are perfect foils for one another as well. Alex – hotheaded, outspoken, obnoxious, eloquent – is the only one who can bring reticent, closed-off Henry out his shell. But it’s Henry who offers the first kiss, taking the lead, being the bold one. They are perfect complements to each other, a wonderful yin-yang.

Another thing I loved about this book is the funny. God, I needed the funny! Part of this is the good-natured jabs Henry and Alex throw at each other, making fun of each other’s titles and countries, the sexy banter that is going to be familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship. Part of it is from the situations they find themselves in. Part of it is the political references. (It really does help to be a history nerd and politico to read this. Seriously. As Henry says in one of his emails to Alex, “The phrase ‘see attached bibliography’ is the single sexiest thing you have ever written to me.”) And when Alex’s Secret Service agent catches him in bed with Henry, his mom puts together a PowerPoint discussion entitled “Sexual Experimentation With Foreign Monarchs:  A Gray Area,” with bullet points like, “Federal Funding, Travel Expenses, Booty Calls, and You.”

And the fact that these two young men are quoting Virginia Woolf and Henry James and Alexander Hamilton . . . (I swear to God, I did not know there would be Alexander Hamilton references in this book. I didn’t. I swear. It just was a totally happy coincidence. I swear.)

But another thing I loved is the wonderfully rounded secondary characters that populate this book. Not a single one is superfluous. Every single one is wonderful and necessary and interacts perfectly with Alex and Henry, and it’s a joy to watch them. Alex’s mother – even though she’s the President, even though she’s up for re-election – stands by her son no matter what, a strong and unswerving presence. His sister is ready to take a bullet for him. His Secret Service agents don’t take his crap – but they also aren’t going to stand by and let him be ripped apart from Henry, either.

But I think what I loved most about this book is that it was just escapism at its best. The tension and trials that Henry and Alex go through are real – but again, this takes place in this wonderful alternative universe where everything went right in November 2016, and where there’s still hope and good people and sanity. Tension? Of course there’s tension, from all sides – from the media, from their families, from the consequences of being found out, from the very real possibility that the royal family will not allow the relationship to continue. Tension between all the characters. Tension from an evil Republican candidate, too. But you know it’s all going to be okay, in the end.

Fair warning, just in case you didn’t get the memo from reading this:  there is language, and gay sex (not 100% blatant, but you’ll definitely get the drift), and unapologetic liberalism. If that bothers you . . . well.

Read it anyway. 🙂

 

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“Writing Herself Into the Narrative” – A review of ‘Eliza Hamilton’ by Tilar J. Mazzeo

elizaSo, yes, it’s no secret, I’ve been on a Hamilton kick lately. And when I saw Tilar J. Mazzeo’s Eliza Hamilton at the local bookstore, I thought it might be the perfect companion to what I already knew.

I’ve rarely been more wrong.

Tilar J. Mazzeo is not a historian, and this is clear on every single page. I  had misgivings about the book from the start, when I studied the extended family tree at the front of the book and noticed that she had Philip Hamilton (the eldest), dying in 1808 – which would mean that Alexander Hamilton had to return from the dead to give him all that bad dueling advice, given that Hamilton died in 1804, and Philip died in 1801. A typo? Perhaps. But that’s not the only issue with the family tree (which doesn’t lend credence to one of Mazzeo’s later claims), and it didn’t get better from there.

As Mazzeo points out, this is the first full-length biography of Eliza Hamilton – wife of Alexander Hamilton – ever published. As a historian and writer and woman, I think it’s fantastic that we are finally beginning to recognize the women that have been referred to as the ‘Founding Mothers.’ Far from being meek, illiterate, obedient wives, these women were strong, courageous, intelligent, and sometimes at odds with their powerful husbands. But this isn’t new territory – others, including Mary Beth Norton, Kathleen M. Brown, and yes, Cokie Roberts, have all walked this ground before. Today, we don’t often recognize the power these women wielded, or how much influence these women had, so this scholarship is both interesting and necessary.

But I would like to emphasize that key word:  scholarship. That is where Mazzeo, who is not a historian, is lacking in this book.  I’d also like to emphasize the word biography – because in the end, that’s not what this book is.

To be fair, I did like the first chapters, and the last chapters. Mazzeo clearly feels sympathy with Eliza Hamilton, and brings her and her family to life in the opening chapters. I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Angelica and Peggy, and later, the youngest sister Cornelia (all of whom eloped against their parents’ wishes!). The entire Schuyler family comes to life in those early chapters, especially Eliza’s mother Kitty.

But when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and to your readers to remain objective, fair, and most of all honest. Mazzeo fails at all three. It’s not just the fact that she liberally peppers the book with her own views as if they were fact (telling us how Eliza felt or acted, when in fact we have no idea if she did or not, and this begins with the very first sentence). For instance, on page 151, she says “Eliza was frantic and had a terrible sense of foreboding. She wanted to come home.” But nowhere does Mazzeo cite her sources for this. If Eliza wrote letters to this effect, Mazzeo has an obligation to cite them, to tell us in the endnotes (which are both inadequate and incorrect, by the way) why this was included. However, because these are not supported with evidence and citations, we are left to assume that all of this is down to Mazzeo’s imagination. In a work of nonfiction, this is not acceptable.

(Also, it bothers me that she repeatedly refers to Hamilton as “Alexander” throughout the book. Even Eliza referred to him as “Hamilton,” most often calling him “my dear Hamilton” in her letters. It’s annoying and amateurish.)

soapboxIn fact, Mazzeo hardly cites anything to support her claims, most of which fly in the face of accepted truths about Hamilton. On page 144, for example, she says blithely, “Alexander and Eliza were not an exception. They owned both enslaved people and indentures.” But, no end notes. No citations. Nothing. How can she say this (especially when Chernow goes to great lengths to point out that we don’t have evidence that the Hamiltons owned slaves) as if it’s gospel? She takes pains to point out that both Eliza and Hamilton kept household account books, that the family was always in a bit of a financial straits. Then where is her evidence for them owning slaves? The one receipt she references is not enough, when there is no evidence afterwards that those slaves ever took up residence in the Hamilton household. If the evidence is there, cite it. If it’s not – then it doesn’t belong in the book.

The title of this review is, of course, a reference to the musical Hamilton – and a fitting one, since Mazzeo makes repeated, Easter-egg references to the musical throughout the book. This only adds to the feeling that she wrote it only to ride the coattails of Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda. ‘Writing herself into the narrative’ is a reference not to Eliza, though, but to Mazzeo herself. And that brings me to the biggest criticism I have:  her treatment of the Reynolds Affair.

Anyone familiar with Hamilton knows the story of the Reynolds Affair – in the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, had a torrid affair, and was subsequently blackmailed by James Reynolds, her husband. He thought it long over, until he was accused of using his position as Secretary of the Treasury to do some insider trading to make his family and friends wealthy. Then, to clear his public reputation, he had to confess to a private affair – which did, yes, ruin his political chances, but which he felt was necessary in order to keep his public, professional honor intact. Mazzeo, however, seems intent on painting Hamilton as nothing more than a despicable scoundrel who fabricated a sexual relationship in order to cover up insider trading.

Which makes absolutely no sense. 

Mazzeo all but manufactures evidence to support her theory. She claims that Hamilton gave money to James Reynolds to invest for him, which was illegal; when those transactions were brought to light, Hamilton fabricated the story about the affair and blackmail to cover his tracks. This is where Mazzeo’s complete lack of historical knowledge and training are most evident. She claims – again, without proof – that the letters sent to him by Maria Reynolds were forged by Hamilton (possibly with the help of Eliza), and that is why Eliza stood by him during that time rather than kicking him to the curb.

First – there is no evidence that Hamilton knew Reynolds before this affair. Above, I referenced issues with the family tree. Mazzeo says that Maria Reynolds was a distant cousin to Eliza, and thus, Hamilton knew Reynolds as a relative. Let’s suppose that the family tree isn’t wrong in this case, and Maria was related to Eliza. Did Hamilton know? And if he did, why would he ask Reynolds to invest money for him? Why not secretly slip his father-in-law a few hundred dollars to invest instead? Or – since he was still Angelica’s husband’s lawyer, and handling his investments, why not slip a few hundred of his own money into John Church’s accounts, then withdraw it just as easily when the money had grown? Hamilton was a financial genius, and Mazzeo forgets this. She studied Eliza – but never Hamilton. Hamilton never really earned enough to support his family. When he died, he was $50,000 in debt. Do we really think a financial genius would have engaged in insider trading and yet not made a penny at it? 

Second – Hamilton would have never done anything to tarnish his reputation, or do anything that might possibly destroy the very things he’d created – the Treasury, and the Bank of the United States. Even a whiff of scandal at that time would have been just cause for his political foes to dismantle both and discredit him. He fought too hard, for too long, to jeopardize them in any way. The Republicans were looking to bring Hamilton down any way that they could. Insider trading – especially entrusted to someone Hamilton didn’t know?! – would have given them the ammunition they needed. There is absolutely no way he’d have risked that. None. Mazzeo needs to read Gordon S. Woods’ “Revolutionary Characters” for a better understanding of how these men viewed their honor. Sacrificing his marriage, admitting in public to a sexual relationship, in order to save his public and political honor – yes, these are precisely the things Hamilton would do. She admits several times that he was a bit of a hound. Yes, he was. And when someone under stress meets someone looking pretty . . .

As to why Eliza never kicked him to the curb – again, to anyone who has studied the eighteenth century, this is no mystery. Divorce was not unheard of, but for a woman, it was difficult to obtain. Where was she going to go? Would she, a devoted mother, risk losing her children? Risk their reputations? She had no choice but to support him. Besides, who’s to say what went on behind closed doors? Who’s to say what was in the letters she burned at the end of her life? Again, this goes back to the idea of public honor, which Mazzeo doesn’t understand. Eliza had a duty as Hamilton’s wife – and a Schuyler – to remain at his side, to not add fuel to the rumors. (It’s not as if it’s the first time a strong, independent woman has done this, after all – Hilary Clinton, anyone?)

There are other small issues of scholarship as well – for instance, she cites a letter from Angelica as proof that Eliza encouraged Hamilton to resign from the Treasury, but she cites the letter as being from 1793 or 94, not 1795 as Chernow does. A small thing, perhaps, but again, something that throws into question her veracity and judgment. In the few images in the book, she cites a portrait of Philip as being of William. Again – when you write history, every detail has to be exact, every idea has to be supported by evidence. If not, it throws into question your entire ability to do the work. And I already had those questions before I started reading.

Mazzeo treats the Reynolds Affair as if it was the midpoint of Eliza’s life – in truth, Hamilton’s murder was the midpoint of her life (she was 48 in 1804), and a scant 53 pages are given to the rest of her life. She lived another half a century, raised the rest of the children on her own, lost her family (including her father and Angelica), created New York’s first orphanage, fought for her husband’s rightful place in history, went west in her 80s, for God’s sake, to see her son William, and . . . all that in 53 pages?!

So no. I wanted to like it. But her treatment of Eliza is too light, too fictional, to be taken seriously, and as I said – in the end, I felt that all Mazzeo wanted to do was write herself into the recent Hamilton narrative by spending way too many chapters on the Reynolds Affair, which she neither understands nor cares to understand.

My hope is that someone else will do Eliza’s story justice.

 

Hate ‘Romeo and Juliet?’ Try ‘Juliet Immortal’ instead . . .

I have a confession to make:

I hate Romeo and Juliet. 

Hate it. Worst play, worst story, ever written.

It was required reading in high school, of course. In class, all the other girls were swooning over Juliet and how much Romeo loved her and just googly-eyed and – blech. Not me. No. I was in the corner rolling my eyes; the teacher caught me and said, “Robyn, what’s your take on it?” And I said, flat-out, “They were stupid. All Juliet had to do was marry Paris. He’s old. He’ll die sooner or later, she’ll inherit his fortune, and then she’s free to marry Romeo and be wealthy. They were stupid. Both of them.”

Long silence, followed by a few whispers. I held my ground. I still do. Romeo and Juliet are the two most stupid characters ever written. Paris would have died ere long. Heck, if they were really intent on being together, they probably could have poisoned him to death. Who’d have known? It’s not like there was CSI:  Verona, after all.

Seriously, Shakespeare. Biggest plot hole in history, there.

51ILTo8CsfL._AC_SY400_So when I was looking for a book for my ReadICT Challenge that was a classic, or the retelling of a classic, I stumbled across Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay. After reading the basic premise – “Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn’t anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternal life as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light. For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now” – I was hooked. See, I knew that Romeo was a no-good rat!

Sometimes, when we read the premise of a book, we have an idea in our heads of how that book should be written. For good or bad, those words take on a life of their own, creating a world in our minds that the author may or may not have meant for us to create. Such was the case with this book. In reading the premise, I had created a world in which those seven hundred years would be showcased – maybe not all seven centuries, but enough to show us the depths of their hatred, the passion for their respective roles, the continuous interactions.

This was not the case. And I’m not saying that what Jay wrote is bad – no, far from it! Just that it didn’t quite meet the expectations I’d created in my mind, which did cloud my reading of it slightly.

Juliet Immortal is set in modern-day California. But in fifteenth-century Verona, Romeo murdered Juliet in order to secure his position in the Mercenaries, really nasty supernatural guys whose job it is to rip love asunder. Juliet, having been stabbed in the heart by her lover, joins the Ambassadors, who are sent to ensure that love conquers all. Throughout the centuries, when true love is at stake, Juliet and Romeo – and, I assume, other Ambassadors and Mercenaries – are sent to ensure that the either get together, or that one kills the other. Literally, there’s no gray area. It’s one or the other. In this ‘shift,’ Juliet is sent to inhabit the body of Ariel, a girl who is quiet and shy, and due to scars and an overbearing mother, stays to herself as much as she possibly can. A girl very unlike the woman Juliet has become, in other words. Romeo, as it turns out, is sent to inhabit the body of the boy who just tried to have sex with Ariel in order to win a bet.

Jay weaves together several subplots quite well – trying to repair Ariel’s relationship with her mother, maintaining her friendship with the rich, spoiled Gemma, trying to keep Romeo away from Gemma while simultaneously trying to figure out who Gemma’s lover is supposed to be – while also focusing on the main question:  why is this shift different than the others? All of the subplots fit each other perfectly and help build on one another, weaving a very tight story. (At least, for most of the book).

There are points at which I think Jay may have fallen victim to the age-old problem authors have:  when world-building, we tend to ‘know what we know,’ and sometimes that means we forget to explain things to our readers. Even when we edit, we may see those glitches and skim over them – “Oh, yeah, I know what that means” – without stopping to think, “Will the reader know what I mean?” The roles of the Ambassadors and the Mercenaries were clear to me, but I wanted more world-building there. For instance, there is a spell that figures prominently in the plot, but Jay never mentions spells earlier in the novel, nor lays the groundwork for how this one might work. Romeo seems to pull it out of thin air. And I think this was the problem I had with the ending as well – I liked everything up to the ending, and I liked the denouement, but the resolution of the conflict itself was too long, too convoluted, and too confusing. (Also, slightly trite.)

My other major issue with the novel was Juliet’s love interest – I despise, absolutely despise novels in which the hero and heroine fall in love at first sight. There is no such thing. And it doesn’t work on any level, for me. There’s no conflict – internal or external – in things like that. There’s no ‘will they or won’t they’ to add spice to the story. Also, let me reiterate, it’s totally ridiculous. They can’t love each other because they don’t know each other. But Juliet’s love interest was already saying “I love you” on Day 3. Excuse me while I go upchuck.

But. That said, what I liked most about this book is that Juliet and Romeo weren’t stupid. This Juliet is kick-ass and smart. She learned her lesson and learned it well. Jay gives Romeo just enough humanity to make us question just how evil he is, to wonder if he’s capable of redemption.

So if you hate Romeo and Juliet as much as I do and were glad when they both died at the end (and wished they’d done it about two acts earlier), you might enjoy Juliet Immortal. 

From the Author’s POV: “Killing Albert Berch”

Almost all families have secrets.

Sometimes, those secrets are ‘open’ – everyone knows about them, and that’s that. Sometimes, they’re hidden – the grandchildren or great-grandchildren may learn about them accidentally, but all evidence has been destroyed and they’re left with a handful of rumors and not much else. And sometimes, the secret isn’t as much a secret, as a mystery. 

berchThis is the case with Dr. Alan Hollingsworth book, Killing Albert Berch. 

I had the chance to go see Dr. Hollingsworth yesterday at Watermark Books in Wichita. In large part, I wanted to go because the era and subject matter are shared by my YA work in progress (1920s, race relations), and because it’s a nonfiction historical, and therefore has a lot in common with my work on the disappearance of George Kimmel. But also because I think as an aspiring writer, I should go see as many authors as I can. You never know when that one moment might spark an idea or answer a question.

Growing up, Hollingsworth had always heard the story that his grandfather was murdered. It was his grandmother’s obsession, trying to bring the murderers to justice while remaining safe. When she died, it became his mother’s obsession – and in turn, it became his.

What Hollingsworth knew of the murder was little more than some scant facts. Albert Berch was only 30 when he died. He and his wife Lula owned a hotel in Marlow, OK. In 1923, Berch hired a black porter, Robert Johnigan, for the hotel – an experiment which lasted only a few short days. Marlow, like many towns in Oklahoma at the time, was a ‘sundown town’ – no Negroes could be in the city limits after dark. These towns even had signs on the outskirts of town as ‘friendly reminders’ of the rule. And like many towns across the country, Marlow had a sizable Klan population. So the family’s belief was that Berch had been killed for daring to hire a black man, and that Robert Johnigan had been killed simply for being a black man.

And until Hollingsworth’s mom died, that was as far as it ever really went.

After her death, Hollingsworth and his family returned to Marlow for a short visit, and went to the local museum, where they found an entire scrapbook about the murder. (Notice the similarity here with Killers of the Flower Moon? Never bypass the chance to go to museums!) From there, Hollingsworth spent every weekend researching.

Of course, as a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research methodologies. For Hollingsworth, some of it was really easy – he and his sisters found a box in their attic marked “Murder Memorabilia,” which included their grandmother’s research notes, interviews she’d done with suspected murderers, and letters. I wish I could be that lucky with Kimmel!

And then – tucked away at the bottom of the box – Hollingsworth found something that made him stop.

I asked him if there was a moment when it all became real to him, when he reached a point of no return. Because I had that, when I found the “Missing” poster for George Kimmel. A moment where the world stops and you realize that this thing you’ve chased for years, is real. Hollingsworth smiled, and held up a 1920s collar and black necktie – the things he found at the bottom of the Murder box. There was a note with them, in his grandmother’s handwriting, saying that this was the last collar and necktie Al Berch ever wore. “I was alone in the house,” he said. “It was eerie.” He pointed to a faint stamp inside the collar. “I saw the size stamped here, 15 1/2, and I thought – this can’t be his. Then I realized that I, too, had worn a size 15 1/2 in my thirties.”

So sure. Finding an entire box marked “Murder Memorabilia” sounds great! But Hollingsworth found that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Men were put on trial for the murder; he knew it. He had the case numbers. But he couldn’t locate them anywhere. A friend finally found them languishing in the courthouse at Oklahoma City, where they had been sent for an appeal, and then never sent back. That gave him a thousand pages to work with. And of course, though the trial transcript answered some questions, it raised many more.

Hollingsworth was frank about the reactions of the descendants, and his interaction – and lack thereof – with them. Marlow is still home to many of the families who were involved, directly and indirectly, with the murders. At first, Hollingsworth had a ‘point person’ in Marlow who acted as an intermediary – though after some time, she backed away from the position. It took longer to find Johnigan’s family – in fact, not until the book was nearly done did Hollingsworth find a post on Ancestry.com, asking about murders that had occurred in Marlow, Oklahoma. That person turned out to be a family member of the porter.

Hollingsworth feels that he has answered the questions his grandmother and mother always had about the murder. He feels confident that he knows who the mastermind behind the murders was, and that the mystery can be laid to rest.

 

http://www.killingalbertberch.com/ – the official site for the book

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/killing-albert-berch-alan-berch-hollingsworth/1125579111#/

“The Boys in the Boat”

Sometimes – too rarely, I’m afraid – we read a book that haunts us. Envelopes us in its cadence and rhythm, its words and images, and we barely realize we’re reading until suddenly, we’re at the end. Bereft. Left staring at the bookshelves, knowing that no matter what book we choose to read next, it will be unfair – because that book, no matter how good, will simply not be able to compete with the book we’ve just finished.

I’m at that point now.

TheBoysintheBoatI just finished Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In fact, I was up until 1 this morning finishing it.

There are so many things I want to say about this book. So many, many good things I want to say about this book. Including how much I love that gorgeous, magical cover. I will try to keep it brief.

As a historian, I love what is commonly called ‘popular history,’ as long as it’s well-written and well-researched. Anything that gets people excited and interested and longing to know more is a plus, in my book. Most of us have heard of Jesse Owens, who famously won the gold medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, defeating the top-ranked Nazi runners – and sticking it to Hitler’s grand plan. But most of us don’t know about the rest of the Berlin Olympics and the other athletes who participated – and won. This book is the story of the eight-man rowing crew from the University of Washington, who fought tooth and nail for three years to earn their right to go up against the best in the world.

I can hear you now – rowing? What’s that? In a boat? Yes. Rowing. Eight men, plus a coxswain, in a hand-built racing shell, rowing together. Look. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about rowing, because Brown will take you through it all, tell you everything you need to know – and do it in a way that leaves you with a sudden realization, a few hours later, that he taught you something, and you were so enthralled with the story that you didn’t even know you were learning.

So no. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about rowing. I didn’t. And it didn’t matter. Brown tells you everything you need to know, so that by the time he describes the races, he doesn’t have to explain anything, again. He can just tell the story, in his masterful, flowing way. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even seen a race, because by the time Brown is done, you will have – in your mind. Brown’s writing is beautiful, ethereal. He has the ability to put words to paper that come to life, so that the reader isn’t even aware of the words on the page – all they’re aware of is the images unfolding in their mind, a movie reel of the imagination. Take, for instance, this passage:

Bobby Moch set the varsity boys to rowing at a leisurely twenty-two or twenty-three. Joe and his crewmates chatted softly with the boys in the other two boats. but they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady . . . And then, one by one, they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness . . . Bobby Moch recalled, “You couldn’t hear anything except for the oars going in the water . . . it’d be ‘zep’ and that’s all you could hear . . . the oarlocks didn’t even rattle on the release.” They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful. 

This is not a book about rowing, per se. This is a book about the humans in the boat, and the humans behind the boat. This book is about the nine-man crew – Joe Rantz, Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Roger Morris, Gordon Adam, Chuck Day, George Hunt, and John White, Jr. But it’s also about their coaches, Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson. It’s about George Pocock, a master craftsman who designed and built all of Washington’s racing shells. It’s about their families and girlfriends, and it’s about the 1930s.

Perhaps one of the reasons why I fell in love with this book so much is because I could, on a deep, almost instinctive level, relate to it. One of the themes of the book is teamwork – becoming not part of a team, but nine people and a racing shell rising above everything that makes them individuals to become something more, something greater, something else. I ride dressage. The principle’s the same. When I’m in the saddle, the horse and I are partners. There is constant communication between us, and when you become so in tune with each other than the rest of the world fades away, and you can feel each footfall, feel the horse’s mouth playing with the bit, the reins a live thing in your hands . . . it’s a feeling you can’t find anywhere else. It’s up to the rider to make the communication happen, every second of every ride. It’s 100% focus, 100% of the time. But eventually . . . you reach a place where, when you get into the saddle, you and the horse just know. You’ve transcended being horse and rider, and become that something else. This is precisely the feeling that top rowing teams have – each man in that boat is in perfect tune with every other man. Individuality slips away. They become one, with each other and the shell.

Another thing I loved about this book – it’s a master class in structure. Brown realizes that this story is larger than the nine boys in the boat. It’s larger than the rivalry with California, and the coaches. It’s emblematic of an era. Laura Hillenbrand does this quite well in her books (Seabiscuit and Unbroken), and Brown gives us the backdrop of the 1930s – both in the US and Germany – in unflinching, poetic detail. Brown looks at Nazi Germany and the creation of the ’36 Olympics, interspersing the story of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s personal movie-maker), and her rivalry with Josef Goebbels, along with the efforts to ‘cleanse’ Germany of anything that might reflect poorly on it. Both stories are told, side by side. You understand what’s at stake for everyone.

I could go on about this book. Yes, this book was published in 2013. Yes, it’s been sitting in my ‘to read’ pile for about six months. YES, I am sorry I didn’t read it earlier – though truth be told, I probably needed to be able to sit down with it when I was on break, and could really devote myself to the story, without distractions.

Please. Do yourself a favor. Go read this book. Now.

In the meantime, I’ll be staring at my bookshelf. Bereft.

Thoughts on “The Man From the Train”

Sometimes, we miss things.

I don’t mean the things we lose. I mean the things we don’t chase. The things we see, think oh, that’s interesting! in the back of our minds, and then bypass them because we don’t have the time or inclination to do more.

A few years ago, when I was reading about twelve years’ worth of local newspapers to find out all I could about George Kimmel and his case, I kept stumbling across unusual stories. Specific stories. Families murdered. Entire families. By an ax. I remember thinking to myself, after about the fifth or sixth one, what the hell is going on here? A serial killer? Or were people just plain freaking crazy in the early 1900s? I jotted down notes about most of them – they’re still in my notebook, along with dates and page numbers of Kimmel-related stories. But I forgot about them.

Most people did.

51977447However, in his new book The Man From the Train, Bill James (and his daughter Rachel) put those bloody drops into a coherent, and disturbing, pattern. Bill James is a baseball writer and statistician; he sees patterns in things. Like me, he saw a pattern in these grisly murders. And he decided to see if the pattern was for real.

James relies predominately (as far as I could tell) on newspapers as his sources. He admits this is problematic upfront – newspapers in the early 1900s were – well, they needed readers. The more sensational the story, the more papers they could sell. And I’m sure there were reporters and editors who weren’t above manufacturing details to make a story more salacious.

You’re probably familiar with at least one of the murders in this book:  the vicious ax murders of the Moore family (and two young neighbor sisters) in Villisca, Iowa in 1912. Made famous by the widespread press it got at the time, the fact that the house is now a museum, and the numerous paranormal groups that have done work there, the Villisca murders are almost legend today. How could someone have broken into a house in a town and murdered eight people, with an ax, and no one heard a thing? 

James wondered the same thing. The precision of the murders, the professionalism, led him to believe Villisca was only one of many. Thus, this book was born.

It’s a book I have severely mixed feelings about.

I downloaded it to my Nook last Saturday, and could not put it down for the first 75-100 pages or so. James has a great writing style – it will probably grate on professional historians, and it did grate on me by the end, but he makes little side comments and addresses the reader one-on-one, so it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with him. As you can tell from the title of the book, James believes that a.) there was a serial killer on the loose in America between 1898 and 1912, and b.) he knows who it was.

That’s fabulous. But one of the reasons I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book is that James spends most of his time trying to prove that some – not all, but some – of the murders in the book were committed by the Man From the Train (MFT) by reiterating things we, the readers, already know. Once James laid out the criteria by which we could judge whether a crime was committed by MFT, he seriously needed to trust the reader to remember them. Like any serial killer, MFT had a pattern to his kills. I can recite them off the top of my head:

  • Near the tracks – within a mile, typically, and often at the junction of two tracks.
  • Families with young girls were most often the targets.
  • Houses were usually isolated, or in very small towns.
  • They were killed with the blunt side of an ax, usually with a single blow to the skull. The ax was usually one the family owned, and it was always left at the scene.
  • Lamps were moved, and left without their shades (which I don’t get, and James never explains).
  • Bodies were typically moved after death – into other rooms, into piles in a single room, and other creepy ways.
  • Like most serial killers, he got off on it.

But James insisted on doing this for every single crime he thought was committed by MFT. After a while, I got the point where I wondered if he was trying to convince himself that MFT had done this – or that MFT existed at all. He also noted that up until 1907, the pattern was consistent – and that after 1908, the pattern changed. He thinks it’s due to a change in the man. I wonder, however, if it is even the same man. Serial killers often take on accomplices. Could the original MFT have died between 1907 – 08, and his apprentice or accomplice taken over? James never entertains this idea.

James also spends entirely too much time on things I felt were trivial, like the feud that occurred in Villisca between a local citizen and a detective. I think that took two chapters. None of it, in my opinion, was necessary for the book he was trying to write. He also talks about crimes that sound as if they were committed by MFT – only to reveal, at the end of the chapter, that for X and Y reason, they weren’t.

The Man From the Train is a popular history. I have no problem with that – I’m sure there are hundreds of historians who do, but as a lower-level college instructor, I want to see books that make history interesting. Anything that draws in readers is a good thing. What I NEED to see in a nonfiction work, though, is sources. There is a point to a Works Cited or bibliography – it lets others follow in your footsteps, look at the same sources you did, and see if they come to the same conclusion or not. But in this book, most sources aren’t cited at all (not properly, anyway). Often, we’re left with, “newspapers said that . . .” and leaves us wondering which newspapers, on what day. (I also take issue with his dismissal and rudeness to Beth Klingensmith and her MLS graduate paper on this very topic. I don’t know Beth, but I can tell you that if she wrote this as a grad student, her paper, at least, is cited!)

It’s also clear he’s no historian – for instance, while discussing murders that took place in Louisiana, he talks about a black woman and says, “Many stories about her claim that she was only one-eighth black, which cannot be true” (p 334). I do not understand this statement at all. It is absolute plausible, especially in the bayou region of Louisiana, for this to be true. Whites were enslaved all the time (for a good treatment of this, read the awesome book The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey); white masters raped (and sometimes had consensual sex with) their female slaves, and then enslaved the resulting children. New Orleans was under the control of the French, Spanish, British, and Americans at varying points in time. Women who ‘passed for white’ were prized in the brothels. So yeah, this woman could very easily have been one-eighth black.

Yes, mixed feelings indeed. I wanted to see how James had handled the thing I’d missed. I wanted to like it. I had great hopes for it. I just – at the end, I just didn’t. I think James has a great voice, and I think he definitely found something. Of course, he’s in the same fix I am – more than a hundred years on, it’s hard to fit the puzzle together. And James does deliver on the promise to tell you who he thinks the killer is, and why.

If you like true crime, this one is probably up your alley. I was hoping for a great deal more, myself.

 

Playing What-If: a review of ‘The Heartless City’

As writers, we all play the ‘what-if’ game. What if . . . someone used standing stones to go back in time in Scotland? What if . . . there were vampires/werewolves/werecats/werewhatevers? What if . . . the world’s greatest art thief got caught and started working for the FBI instead? What if . . .

About a month ago, I walked into my local coffee house and saw a sign on the wall announcing a local author who would be doing a book signing soon. That’s cool – but we’ve frankly got a lot of local authors, most of them self-published. What stopped me in my tracks was the cover:  cover1000-1-678x1024

Yeah. Remind you of anything? Maybe this?

9781416975861

The Infernal Devices trilogy is my favorite Young Adult series ever (so much better than Mortal Instruments – more depth, more character development, more conflict!). So I had to go.

Andrea Berthot lives right here in my home town, and she was gracious and lovely. When I admitted the reason I was curious about the book was due to the cover, she laughed and said she loved it for that reason, too – when they asked her what she wanted for the cover, the only thing she could think of was a boy and the London skyline.

And she plays the ‘what if’ game. For her first novel, The Heartless City, it was a historical and fictional question:  what if Dr. Jekyll was real, and what if his experiments didn’t end where Robert Louis Stevenson said they did?

The Heartless City is the first book of Berthot’s Gold and Gaslight Chronicles series. It’s a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde tale. It starts in 1903, thirteen years after Dr. Jekyll’s experiments went horribly wrong, resulting in the creation of more Hyde-like monsters – and a total quarantine of London. No one out. No one in. The Lord Mayor has taken over as a quasi-king; Parliament has moved to York; food is rationed and no one has news of the outside world.

In this world lives Elliot Morrissey, the son of the Lord Mayor’s personal doctor, and his best friend Cam (the Lord Mayor’s son). Elliot, due to a misbegotten experiment of his own, is an empath – he can feel every emotion of every person around him. Handy, when there are monsters to avoid. Not so handy, when people desperately need to hide certain things.

After going to a ‘dance hall’ for Cam’s birthday, they meet Iris, who is also not what she seems to be. Together, the three will have to figure out if there is any way to cure the Hydes – and who has a vested interest in not curing them.

As a writer, it’s difficult to review books – I always want to offer constructive criticism, as if I’m nothing more than a beta reader and there’s still time to change things! I think it’s more difficult for writers, in fact, than people who are only readers. Those who don’t write really don’t understand the amount of work that goes into writing a novel. The hours you spend on research, putting fingers to keyboard, editing with red pen in hand – those are hours you’ve chosen to subtract from other areas of your life.

So writers have a bit of empathy for fellow writers that often stays our hand when we might otherwise be harsh. Because we can read a scene and even if it doesn’t sound quite right to us, we know that the author probably spent hours and hours and hours in rewrites on it. We also know that agents and editors have to have their say and (I know this is heresy, but . . .) those changes may not always be for the best.

There was a lot to like in The Heartless City – the friendship between Elliot and Cam, the way Berthot handles the overwhelming emotions Elliot feels, and his real conflicts about what to do about it. Philomena sparkles on the page as the comedy relief/bad-ass girl rebelling against her heritage and station in life. Iris – well, truth be told, I’m still unsure what I think of her; sometimes she didn’t feel ‘real’ to me. It’s Cam and Philomena that most resonate on the page – Cam’s desperation to know more of the outside world – to be freed of the hell that London has become – is palpable and I sympathize with it completely. (Truth be told, I found Cam more interesting than Elliot, and I hope that the third book will focus on him.)

The story flows smoothly, though I admit I did lay it down for several days after about chapter 4 – it felt a bit slow to begin – and the Hydes seem to get lost after a time. The main antagonist is believable – a bit two-dimensional, but we all know people like this (cough-Trump!-cough), so that didn’t bother me too much, either. Honestly, part of me prefers a villain I can just hate. 🙂

One of the things I disliked about the book was something that I dislike in a lot of YA – or even a lot of adult books, for that matter – which is what I call “Twilight Romance Syndrome” (TRS, for short). This is when the two main characters fall in luuv instantly, without knowing the slightest bit of information about the other – basically the idea that “he/she is hot, he/she is fascinating/brooding/unavailable, so I MUST fall in love with them NOW!” Thus it was with Elliot and Iris, who were declaring love after only knowing each other for a few days.

I’ve posted about this particular pet peeve of mine before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. Authors, please, do us all a favor:  your characters can fall in love all they want, but for heaven’s sake, let them do it gradually! Make it real. Make it believable.

For some reason, I actually found Cam’s romance with . . . um, someone, must not give too many spoilers! . . . more believable, maybe because I saw it coming a mile away. Or maybe because it was hinted that this romance had developed over the last several weeks or months – again, gradually.

Rant over. Back to the review:

One other thing I think Berthot could have worked on more was her use of language, particularly dialect and accent. Anyone who’s read a lot of Victorian literature knows it’s a very specific style of speaking (and the upper and lower classes had their own ‘dialects,’ even), and since London had been under quarantine since 1890, I would expect much more Victorian-esque speaking. But except for a bit of Cam’s good-natured jests, there wasn’t much of that here. The characters don’t even sound particularly British. If you watch any good British shows like Downton Abbey or Doc Martin, you get a feel for how true Brits speak – the rhythms, the sentence structure, the words. There just wasn’t any of that here, and that’s something true Anglophiles need. (A good example of someone who does this well is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire series is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

But overall, as a debut novel – especially one in the alternate history/paranormal realm – it’s a good first effort. Solid characters, solid plot, solid writing. And in the age-old game of ‘what if,’ it excels.

 

The second book in the series, The Hypnotic City, which follows Philomena’s adventures in New York City, is available.

A link to the Curiosity Quills Press’s homepage for the Gold and Gaslight Chronicles:  https://curiosityquills.com/series/gold-gaslight-chronicles/