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Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.

 

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At one point in Jennifer Crusie’s new novel Maybe This Time, Andie is on the phone with her fiance Will, a good guy who is nevertheless the wrong guy for her because the right guy is always going to be her ex, attorney North Archer. But Andie has yet to figure that out as she tries to convince Will she can’t talk now because she’s really, really busy.

” ‘Look, my plate’s a little full today.’ I’ve got a TV reporter, a ghost expert, a wack-job housekeeper, two disturbed children, homicidal ghosts, and a seance this afternoon. ‘I have to go.’ ”

I have to admit that I would never have thought of pairing contemporary romance superstar Crusie with long-dead literary lion Henry James, but her spin on the classic The Turn of the Screw is wicked fun. James might be turning over in his grave, but he and literary purists should know that Crusie, who has advanced degrees in literature, feminist theory and writing, loves the original story and and used to teach it before she became a best-selling author. She knows her way around a Gothic, and her homage to James also includes references to Poe, Du Maurier and other great haunted-house tale-tellers.

But she puts her own stamp on the proceedings from the very beginning by subbing smart, snarky Andi Miller for James’ nameless, nervous governess. Andi, as a last favor to North, chained to his desk at the family firm (why she left him 10 years ago), agrees to look after his distant, orphaned cousins, who have already been through three nannies at their creepy old mansion in back-of-beyond southern Ohio. 

Andi arrives like a breath of fresh air at the dusty, cheerless house being run by Mrs. Crumb, a Mrs. Danvers/Dickensian creature who spikes the tea and neglects her odd young charges, Carter and Alice.  Winning their trust won’t be easy, but Andi immediately calls North to order cable TV, computers, a handyman and a cleaning service.  She discovers that solemn, serious Carter likes to draw and that Alice likes to decorate, especially with sparkles.

Crusie’s tale sparkles, too, as three ghosts make their presence known, and interested bystanders arrive on the scene — a scheming, toothy TV reporter; a medium with attitude and a spirit guide named Harold; North’s brother Southie and mother Lydia; Andi’s mother Flo; a psychic researcher; Will the fiance; and, eventually, North. 

The narrative may appear a bit crowded, but Crusie’s colorful characters are convincing, even, especially, the ghosts. One dances, one hovers, and the third threatens in a terrifying manner. These ghosts just don’t want to have fun. But readers will.

Open Book: I bought the e-book version of Jennifer Crusie’s Maybe This Time because I love a good ghost story, including James’ The Turn of the Screw. If you like your ghost stories with grins, check out Carolyn Hart’s Bailey Ruth novels (the third, Ghost at Work, was just published) and Nancy Atherton’s long-running Aunt Dimity series.

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