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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the LaneOceanLane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 181 pages
Genre: magical realism
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

This is a strange little book, but thoroughly compelling.

The narrator (who, as usual, resembles Neil Gaiman more than he doesn’t, though he confesses in the afterword that the familial circumstances are nothing like his own) is a middle-aged man returning to the village he lived in as a child, for a funeral. Wandering in avoidance of other people, he finds himself at the Hempstock house at the end of the lane, and remembers that, forty years earlier, a strange man committed suicide in a car there. The narrative then drops us back through the decades, where the narrator is a seven-year-old boy in a family facing financial difficulties and emotional tension.

The stranger’s death sets off a strange chain of events, unleashing an eldritch creature who wants to destroy the narrator’s family and, perhaps, the world as we know. Standing between him and danger is Lettie Hempstock, who takes responsibility for him because, it seems, responsibility is a bit of a family trait. Lettie is eleven, and may have been eleven for a very long time. She has deep knowledge, considerable power of her own, and an utterly normal way of talking. She promises to protect the narrator, no matter what, and he thinks he’d die for her.

Gaiman’s prose is, as ever, entrancing — elegant and brutal at the same time. He can paint you the mysticism of the Fae and a chillingly mundane reality in one smooth stroke. There’s a lot of power in juxtaposition.

This book is, at its heart, a childhood fantasy — in the very least twee and charming way I could possibly mean those words. Horrors are everywhere when you’re a kid, and the world is so much bigger than you can possibly comprehend. So of course you wander off the path — if you didn’t, you’d never find out anything. The woods behind your house go on forever, and there really could be an ocean at the end of the lane, for all you know. And adults are mysterious, inexplicable creatures. Creatures who can be quite thoroughly menacing, because, as this book points out — and as too many abuse victims have discovered through the ages — they are large, and powerful, and who would ever believe a child with an incredible story? Even a child just a few years older than you are seems impossibly more skilled, an initiate into mysteries you know nothing about yet — but will, someday. It’s a terrifying way to exist. It’s a wonder any of us get past it, that we don’t just freeze up in anxiety and indecision and refuse to step either forward or back.

And yet, for all of that, don’t you miss it?

Not all the time, of course, but I think most of us have a little piece of our hearts that still yearns for the days when anything seemed possible, even if the anythings were horrible. A part of us that could still believe in the incredible, in such a primal way that’s hope and fear mixed together. We remember when the world seemed bigger, when more things seemed possible, when we hadn’t learned just how many limitations and constrictions the world will place on us, and we regret what age and experience have done to us, what they’ve taken away. Cynicism builds walls, makes your feet tread familiar paths. It’s this bittersweet nostalgia that Gaiman captures so beautifully, and that is the real genius behind The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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Two Graves, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Two Graves (Pendergast #12, Helen Trilogy #3)TwoGraves
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 578 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: It’s going to be very hard to discuss this book without significant spoilers. I will begin with a spoiler-free section (for this book, at least; it would be absolutely impossible to try and talk about this book without spoiling Cold Vengeance, so if you haven’t read that and intend to, turn around now), and then will have a clearly-marked spoilerful section beneath a cut. Read at your own risk.

This book picks up immediately where Cold Vengeance left off, as Helen Esterhazy Pendergast gets kidnapped mere moments after being reunited with our beloved Aloysius. Despite a bullet wound, he takes off after her, following a trail south to Mexico — but when things take a turn for the worse, his quest eventually leads him all the way to South America, hunting down the neo-Nazi organization Der Bund.

As I said in my Cold Vengeance review, Nazi themes really do nothing for me. P&C handle it fairly well, at least creating a somewhat plausible reason for a Nazi cell to have survived for decades without any intervention or investigation. And I did learn a few things about early German colonization in Brazil (which happened long, long before the Nazis — Brazil apparently wanted to attract new settlers so much that they were offering cash). Our familiar friends are out of the way pretty early, present for the New York half of the book, but absent when Pendergast goes abroad. His allies in Brazil, a local honest colonel and a cohort of hand-picked men eager to root out the shadowy Nazi organization lurking in their district, don’t offer much in the way of supporting characters, which is a shame. P&C are capable of creating really great secondary characters, but these guys ultimately felt a lot like Ned Betterton — superfluous and under-drawn.

The pacing of this book is great, though. There’s no real lull in the action, and Pendergast’s emotional journey is as twisted as ever.For all that he’s brilliant and knows how to manipulate the feelings of others to get what he wants, he’s clearly never learnt to deal with his own all that well, but rather to bury them or dismiss them as illogical (there’s something a little Vulcan-esque about A.X.L.P. sometimes, really). It’s once again taking him far, far out of his comfort zone, into a place where his preternatural detective skills can’t actually fix everything, and I appreciate that P&C are willing to do that to their character. We also get to see more of Corrie Swanson in this book, which thrills me (it also reveals that, in-universe, it’s only been four years since the events of Still Life with Crows). I can see her going in a really exciting direction, now that she’s studying criminal justice. I wonder if — and hope that — P&C are grooming her and their readers to set her up as the next primary protagonist for the series. There’s also further development of Constance’s story (which is, if possible, even stranger than Pendergast’s). Two Graves is engaging and well-rounded without ever feeling over-stuffed.

Spoiler Territory: From here on out, consider yourself warned. The significant spoilers start really early in this book, so some of this is discussing things that happen within the first 100 pages — but are still, I think, worth warning about. The rest, however, will go all the way through the end of the book and will discuss the trilogy as a whole.

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The Lord Meren Mysteries, #1-3, by Lynda S. Robinson

MurderAnubisTitles: Murder at the Place of Anubis, Murder at the God’s Gate, Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
Author: Lynda S. Robinson
Years of Publication: 1994 / 1995 / 1997
Length: 224 / 288 / 258 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

MurderGodsGateI’ve decided to review the first trilogy of this series all together, since the books are sort of too short to treat with individually. (Not that you couldn’t. It would just make for very short posts, and I’m more likely to complete one long one than three short ones).

The Lord Meren mysteries are set in ancient Egypt, taking place during the reign of Tutankhamun. Each book has its own murders to solve, but they weave together into a larger political plot regarding the tensions of the time. These books posit Tutankhamun as the younger brother of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten (DNA tests in 2010 revealed him to be most probably Akhenaten’s son, but these books work from a different dynastic theory, popular and viable in the 1990s). MurderRejoicingAkhenaten had tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic society, going so far as to construct a new capital for his sun god; though the kingdom reverted after his death, old tensions between the two factions persist in Robinson’s version of Tut’s Egypt. Lord Meren is “the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh”, his chief investigator, who also bears the coveted title Friend of the King. Along with advisers Ay, Horemheb, and Maya, he works to keep peace between the court and the still-resentful priests of Amun, protecting the young king until he can grow into himself and govern Egypt with wisdom and strength. This is all, of course, very sad, since everyone knows that Tutankhamun dies at 19 — and if you know what happens between Ay and Horemheb afterwards, it’s even worse. That shadow hangs over the series, but not so heavily as to be a distraction.

Robinson does a great job of evoking her setting. She has clearly done her research when it comes to Egyptology — there are so many wonderful cultural nuances, everything from dressing rituals to furniture to food. It’s both alien and familiar, as is entirely appropriate for a world removed from ours by several thousand years. People are people, on the whole, motivated by more or less the same desires throughout history — but the dressings change. The morality is different. The etiquette is foreign. But Robinson brings the reader through it deftly. Only occasionally do her explanations get a little too heavy-handed, and she does have a habit of repeating herself. For the most part, however, she illustrates the world of the 18th Dynasty beautifully. She also handles the detective work nicely — an interesting feat without the benefits of modern science. A lot of what Meren does is simple deduction, or the sort of science that they had available to them (the Egyptians were, for example, experts on many poisons), but there’s also superstition and religion mixed up in it. For instance, when there’s a suspicious death, Meren brings in a priest to check for signs of magical interference. In this way, Robinson makes sure that the mystery-solving never feels anachronistic. Meren is a brilliant and capable man of his time, truly exceptional — but he remains a man of his time, not apart from it, which I appreciate.

All three books have snappy, quick-moving plots. In Place of Anubis, a man is killed in the sacred place of embalming, and his wife, sons, concubine, and coworkers all seem to have reason to have done it. In God’s Gate, one death, made to look like an accident, sets of a chain of murders pointing at a conspiracy among the priests. In Feast of Rejoicing, Meren’s cousin-by-marriage dies at his house, forcing him to examine his own relatives as potential suspects, all the while trying to protect his teenaged daughters from harm. Throughout all three, another mystery surfaces: the fate of Queen Nefertiti, assumed to have died of plague — but Meren comes to suspect it may not have been so simple a tragedy. He also has to work to keep the young king Tutankhamun sheltered, but without hobbling his growth as a ruler — and he has to help the king protect the mummified remains of Akhenaten, the very pharaoh who caused so many problems for Meren.

Lord Meren, his adopted son Kysen, and his daughter Bener (introduced only in the third book) are the best things about this series. They’re wonderful characters. Meren is haunted by the past, both by his own capitulation to the blasphemy of the Aten and to his role in Akhenaten’s death (a sin of omission more than anything else, but still a source of guilt for the honorable Meren). Akhenaten had Meren’s father killed, then imprisoned and tortured Meren into accepting his new god; during Akhenaten’s reign, Meren had to bear witness to all sorts of fits of madness, blasphemies, and desecrations, and he has never been able to forgive himself for being party to it. Akhenaten was also responsible for the murders of the wife and child of Meren’s cousin Ebana, a priest of Amun, causing lasting tension between them. Meren also has a jealous younger brother who was spoiled by their abusive father, a sly former friend and potential lover called Bentanta, a host of meddling relatives, and three daughters growing up too quickly for him to handle. Bener, the middle daughter, is fiendishly clever, with a tendency to buck proper gender roles in an attempt to help her father. Kysen was adopted by Meren as a child, plucked from his own abusive father, lifted from a commoner’s life to the glories of the court, and never quite comfortable there. He follows in Meren’s footsteps, learning the methods of detective work and interrogation, helping Meren to piece together the puzzles. Together, they make an intriguing and complex family.

I can happily recommend these books to fans of murder mysteries and historicals. I read them first when I was about 12, and I return to them every few years, just as light, easily digestible summer reads. They aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are well-rendered, engaging, and well worth spending a few hours with. I would also recommend them to anyone who enjoys the Pendergast novels (as many of my followers do). There are some similarities between Meren and our beloved Aloysius, and the tangled family dynamics twisting into the murders has a similar appeal.

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Utopia, by Lincoln Child

Title: UtopiaUtopia
Author: Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 464 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I’m terrified of roller coasters. It isn’t the speed or the height or the drops — it’s that I don’t trust them. Whenever I board one, I cannot get past the suspicion that it’s going to break and kill me. I’m someone who doesn’t like being out of control, and so I don’t get a thrill from consigning my body to a contraption of steel and electronics for the sole purpose of having the living daylights scared out of me. I just plain don’t find roller coasters fun.

This book is certainly not going to help my opinion of them. The incident in the first chapter of the book, where a child comes loose of the safety bar thanks to an electronic engineering failure, is literally the stuff of my nightmares. But that exploration of worst case scenarios was, bizarrely, part of what made this book so fascinating for me (even if it will make it even more challenging to board “The Mummy Ride” the next time I’m in Orlando).

Utopia takes place in an imagined theme park in Nevada — and, roller coasters aside, it’s a theme park I’d love to go to. It envisions the sort of immersive experience that many theme parks (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and WDW’s New Fantasyland) are moving towards, integrating total environmental details, committed cast members, and, most critically for the book, new technology in robotics and holograms. Divided into four sections — medieval Camelot, foggily romantic Victorian Gaslight, the cheery seaside Boardwalk, and the futuristic Callisto, with waterpark Atlantis in development — Utopia aims to dissociate its guests from reality for the length of a day.

This is a really fun book to read if you know a lot about theme parks. For all that I hate roller coasters, I love Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Universal Studios, and I have friends who’ve worked at those parks, which means I know more than the average visitor about how they work. Reading Utopia is sort of like playing catch-the-reference: many of its secrets are based on those of Disney World. Child spends a lot of time detailing the parks themselves, and honestly, those were my favourite parts of the book. I like knowing how things like that work, so when he discusses the decompression methods that the park uses to transition guests into each of the park’s worlds, or talks about the cast members moving in the “subterranean” layers, or about the interactive elements of the parks’ environment, I was totally engaged and fascinated.

The conflict of the book comes from a gang of criminals determined to incite mayhem and, by doing so, milk the park for its technological secrets and quite a bit of cash. A network of specialists, largely unknown to each other, works to infiltrate the park’s computer and security systems. Their hacking causes a few “warning signals” at first — initially harmless though annoying shutdowns and malfunctions, and then the first real calamity, the coaster accident in the first chapter of the book. Initially believing it to be a problem with the robotics, the park calls in Andrew Warne, a genius computer engineer who designed the system — he thinks he’s being solicited to help with the Atlantis expansion, but really they want him to take his systems off-line for repairs. He happens to arrive on the same day that the criminals make their presence known, issuing a threat to the park administration that if their demands are met, no one gets hurt — but that if they aren’t met, all of the park’s 65,000 guests are in potential jeopardy. Unfortunately, his presence spooks the gang, who weren’t counting on the park having someone who could possibly root them out — and who make a target not only of Warne, but of his daughter Georgia, whom he brought to the park with him.

There’s a sub-conflict, too, and one which I sort of wish had gotten more attention: the idea that, by focusing so much attention on the roller coasters and thrill rides rather than on the immersive world experience, the park has drifted away from the vision of its creator, who died before he could see his dream fulfilled. That fuels a lot of the inner turmoil for Warne, who was a friend of the creator and who got edged out of the park after his death. Warne also had a relationship with the current park manager, Sarah Boatwright, which influences the dynamics on the personal side of the story.

My biggest complaint about the book is that I felt like it rather pulled its punches. I’ve gotten used to the unflinching horror of P&C’s Pendergast series, and Preston’s stand-alones are pretty gruesome, too. Almost every incident in Utopia, however, turns out to be not quite as bad as Child initially leads the reader to believe. As a result, the stakes don’t feel quite as high as they ought to. Logically, you know that disaster could be imminent — but for most of the book, the heat and the tension just isn’t there. Coming into this straight after re-reading Relic and Reliquary may not have been the best idea, in retrospect, because it caused a dissociation between what I was expecting and what the book ended up giving me.

I also feel like there were some missed opportunities with the technology. Child spends a lot of time talking about how the park uses technology to manipulate emotions as well as to entertain — scents and sounds that create “good vibes”. It led me to expect that part of the villains’ scheme would be to use the emotions of the park guests against them — to change those sensory input systems to trigger fear, panic, violence rather than joy and contentment. By contrast, what the villains actually ended up doing with bombs, weaponry, and electronics just seemed crude. (It’s also really, really easy to figure out who one of the criminals is, if you’re someone who can pick up on the right sort of information — I don’t want to give it away, since it’s meant to be an element of suspense and confusion, but… well, for me, because of a very particular skill set I have, it was almost ridiculously obvious).

Child clearly did his research when it comes to amusement parks, though, and his skill at keeping a plot tripping along is as good as ever. Utopia makes me wonder if he’s often responsible for the victim-viewpoint chapters in the Pendergast novels, since that’s a trope we get here that I don’t recall seeing much in Preston’s solo work. It’s something I enjoy in a book, and a testament to a writer’s skill, to draw a realistic character than a reader will care about in just an introductory page or two.

On the whole, Utopia is an engaging and creative thriller, even if I feel like it missed a few opportunities. I can cheerfully recommend it to anyone who likes P&C’s work, to lovers of thrillers and suspense, and to those fascinated by theme parks and their operations.

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The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets (as turned out to be the problem with Interred with Their Bones). I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes (as was my trouble with the well-written but not-to-my-preference The Thirteenth Tale). I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be, nor is the vaguely paranormal element the jacket hints at as prevalent. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

I only have a few minor complaints, most of which didn’t really impede my enjoyment of the book: Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true? I don’t know). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the sort who has a real interest in the early modern world of playmaking and printing. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think those of a scholarly bent will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Cross-posted, with some additions and adjustments, from the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog.

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The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth TaleThirteenthTale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Gothic fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I am in the unusual position of thinking that a book was exceptionally well-written and compelling, and yet still not liking it very much.

The Thirteenth Tale is a modern Gothic tale, very much in the vein of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White — and Setterfield is not only consciously aware of it, but calls attention to it throughout the novel. Her heroine, Margaret, is steeped in these books, but also in obscure biographies. She works at her father’s used book store and has never, it seems, really had to do much of anything; her father occasionally trades in priceless literary artifacts, and that sustains her family while the shop is just a side project. She is introverted to the point of being something of a recluse, and she is haunted by her dead twin — a twin who did not survive much past birth. Her mother could never emotionally connect to her because of this (something I’ll expound on later).

Margaret is surprised to receive a summons to write the biography of the notoriously private but fabulously successful writer Vida Winter, whom the narrative posits as a modern-day Dickens, voice of England in a new century. Winter has stalwartly refused all previous attempts at biography, but she knows she’s dying and she chooses Margaret (for reasons that become clear as the book goes on) to document her life. Margaret is suspicious at first, knowing that Winter could easily play her and fob another falsity off on her, so she asks for verifiable details. She gets a few, including Winter’s real name – Adeline March. And then Winter starts telling her story.

It’s compelling, dark, twisted, and thoroughly saturated with death. It begins with death — her grandmother’s, leading to her grandfather’s withdrawal from society. Their children, Charlie and Isabelle, grow up almost entirely without supervision; Charlie becomes obsessed with Isabelle. She goes along with him, teases him, but eventually runs off and marries another man — only to return with twins not much later, announcing that her brief husband is dead. The twins, indiscriminately named Emmeline and Adeline, have Charlie’s colouring. Draw your own conclusions. The twins grow up even more feral than Charlie and Isabelle did, speaking in their own language. Adeline is brutally destructive and without empathy; Emmeline is soft, weak-willed, controlled by her sister, and captivated by stories. The cook and gardener do little to influence them; a governess briefly instills a bit of order but is driven away by scandal. That’s the inner story. The outer story is also saturated with death. Winter is dying, Margaret cares more about dead people than she does about the living, someone else she meets was abandoned as a child and everyone he knows seems to be dead — themes of death and loss just permeate the entire book.

And that is what made it really difficult for me to enjoy. It was just too morbid. I am, by nature, far more sanguine. I mean, it certainly isn’t that I mind death in a story, but throughout The Thirteenth Tale, it just seems as though everyone is luxuriating in death, utterly steeped in it and not particularly willing to be otherwise. Margaret, for example, keenly feels the lack of her mother’s attention — though Margaret must be at least thirty years old by now, she’s never formed another social network, so that has remained a powerful influence on her. And I can’t forgive her mother for that neglect. I can’t even imagine what a devastating loss it must be, to lose a child — but I must also think that, when it’s a child you lose at birth and never know, and when there is another child there who needs you, then it must be a recoverable loss. I cannot fathom nor can I excuse that sort of neglect. But Margaret has never shown any inclination not to be ruled by it or by her dead twin’s ghost, either — rather she ensconces herself in the loss, and that is a point of view I also cannot see from.

I also can’t figure out when the book is set, and that just drives me up the wall. I know it’s intentional — the reader’s guide at the back of the book indicates as much. But I just can’t stand it. It distracts me throughout the entire book. Margaret’s part of the story, the “present day” as far as the narrative is concerned, could be anywhere from the 1950s to the advent of the Internet. When a character is mentioned as having gone to war, there’s no indication of which war. The family is so removed from society and untouched by world events that there’s no indication of what decade the story begins in. The twins could be growing up anywhere from Victoria’s last few decades to the 1930s, knowing only that sixty years have passed between the close of that story and when Vida Winter seeks out Margaret. I couldn’t pin it down, because Setterfield deliberately didn’t want me to, and that frustrated me immensely.

But for all of that, The Thirteenth Tale really is well written. Like I said, I found it compelling even as I disliked it, and the technical proficiency is quite high. Winter’s pronouns as she tells the tale of the twins are particularly well-handled, and the weaving of frame narrative and the meat and bones of the story is deft. The twist at the end was unexpected, but still managed to tie up all the loose ends. Setterfield also deals rather smartly with the idea of unreliable narrators — Margaret wonders throughout the whole book if Winter is being completely honest with her, but, of course, we as readers can never know either way, since the book is written from Margaret’s point-of-view, and we don’t know if she’s being honest with us, either. It’s an interesting angle from which to approach storytelling, and Setterfield makes a nice job of it.

So, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book quite as full-throatedly as I have some others — I just know that others may find far more enjoyment in it than I did. If you like Gothic novels, then, by all means, delve into this one.

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Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Title: Interred with Their Bones
Author: Jennifer Lee Carrell
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 416 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 2.5 stars

Interred with Their Bones is a Shakespearean twist on The Da Vinci Code, and if you approach the book with that firmly in mind, you’ll probably find some enjoyment in it. It is, however, one of those books where you can only apply but so much logic to it before the entire structure collapses under the weight of sensibility.

The book’s plot structure follows a little too neatly in the Da Vinci path, involving many of the same character tropes and narrative devices. We open, after a brief and vague historical flashback, with Kate Stanley, director of the Globe’s Hamlet, meeting for the first time in years with her estranged and eccentric mentor, Roz Howard. (If you’re enough of an early modern history geek to be quirking an eyebrow at those names, rest assured: yes, everyone in the book labors under similarly referential nomenclature). Roz has some terrible secret to impart and a quest to set Kate on, but before she can reveal the details of either, she is found dead in the aftermath of a fire (not, as the book jacket would have you believe, at the Globe itself, but in an auxiliary building). Kate feels obligated to pick up Roz’s trail of bread crumbs. As she follows them, more dead bodies start piling up around her, and she ends up fleeing with the police on her trail, a device which feels even more strange in this book than it does in The Da Vinci Code. Kate has no real reason to distrust the police, no reason not to clear herself from culpability before embarking on her quest, and so her actions just seem bizarre and inexplicable. It gives the drama of the plotline a false echo, and it’s just one of the threads that a reader has to avoid plucking at in order to avoid a total collapse of the narrative. Still, with thrillers, you do sometimes have to make plausibility allowances, so this element may not prove troublesome to all readers.

Part of what hindered my enjoyment of this book, which I could otherwise have consumed as mere Da Vinci Code-esque fluff, is that I resent, as a scholar, how much this book not only entertains anti-Stratfordian opinions, but implies that very serious people in the Shakespearean world would hold those opinions. (Hint: They don’t. Some actors and directors, shamefully, but no scholar worth his or her salt gives the authorship “controversy” any credence because it doesn’t deserve any). I started to recoil as soon as Carrell broached the topic, and eventually, that aversion colored my reading of the text pretty strongly. I now know how art historians and theologians alike must feel about Dan Brown.

Despite the pitfalls of the exploration of the “controversy,” the book is actually at its best when traipsing through historical possibilities — the inventions linking Cardenio to Catholic plots via Cervantes and Jesuits are reasonably entertaining and provide some profitable fodder for exploration. I could cheerfully entertain all of that, if not for the editorial commentary suggesting that any of it might be true. The jet-setting aspect of the book, volleying from London to Harvard to the Southwest to Spain (and ricocheting back and forth between some of those a few times) is a fun diversion, and Carrell does an admirable job of painting her landscapes.

One of the critical failings in this book, unfortunately, lies in its protagonist and narrator. Carrell presents Kate as though she is some big up-and-comer in the Shakespearean field, a director that a Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellan type would refer to as “that brilliant American child.” Kate, of course, demurs from this description in , but the whole thing smacks of Informed Ability. Kate is a brilliant scholar and director because Carrell tells us that she is. This trait in of itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that, for such a prodigy, Kate has some pretty glaring gaps in her knowledge — and one of them is the fundamental underpinning of the mystery, the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lost play entitled Cardenio. The first-person narrative also hampers the book, partially because Kate’s head is not quite an interesting enough place to spend four hundred pages in, partially because it accentuates that gulf between her reputation and what she actually knows. First-person narration creates a trap for a writer: if the audience needs to know something, either the narrator knows it and tells it, which can come off as preachy, or the narrator doesn’t know and has to find out in order for the audience to find out, even if it’s something the narrator should already know — or shouldn’t need quite as much hand-holding to figure out. Interred with Their Bones manages to fall into both pits multiple times at different points in the story.

Interred with Their Bones was adequate entertainment for lying on a beach. If you’re in a place where your mind can let go and indulge freely in a suspense romp, then by all means, pick this up. The pace clips along well enough to keep a reader engaged, and if the plot turns are occasionally too predictable, sometimes that’s what you’re looking for out of light summer reading. If you’re looking for heavier fare or superlative writing, though, you may want to look elsewhere, as this book doesn’t hold up well under even light scrutiny. Apparently there’s a sequel. Might I read it? Sure, if someone handed it to me free of charge, and I had some time to kill. Unfortunately, that level of engagement and investment is all that Carrell’s writing warrants.

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