Books We Loved, Apr. 2017
Aliette de Bodard, The House of Binding Thorns (Ace, 2017)
This novel, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, is the follow-up to The House of Shattered Wings. The books are set in an alternate universe, where dragons and other sea creatures drawn from Vietnamese mythology control the river Seine and the Fallen, ruthless angels expelled from heaven, control everything else.
The reader is enveloped in gossamer threads of dread as she reads about the struggles of various characters to escape domination and cruelty. A pregnant Vietnamese woman, an immortal from Asia who has lost most of his power, and a Frenchwoman who is addicted to the magic found in angel bones, all try to find their way among the shifting alliances, subterfuges, and occasional rewards of a decaying and rotting city. This is low fantasy: magic mixed with political machinations, the ethereal mixed with the pain of labor.
With the plot occasionally taking a backseat to setting, there is nothing for it but to give yourself over to the heavy, evocative atmosphere, and let it subjugate you with its hypnotic cloud of magic. For an interview with the author, check out New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.—GM
Paula Marantz Cohen, What Alice Knew (Sourcebooks, 2010)
Lovers of Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, and anyone with a taste for literary historical fiction, will dive right into What Alice Knew. Set in London during the era of Jack the Ripper, the book features Henry James as a dissolute and unsatisfied writer; his brother, the brilliant father of a branch of psychology, William James; and their less-known sister Alice. Alice is bedridden with what appears to be a psychosomatic long-term illness that keeps her away from any society except that of her own choice. She enjoys a deep relationship with the rarely seen Katherine and with a handful of other intellectuals and artists, along with her brother Henry. William James lives in Boston and comes to London at the behest of Scotland Yard to assist in solving the Jack the Ripper crimes. With William’s appearance, the trio is together once more, and Alice devotes herself to solving the crime, à la Nero Wolfe, from her bedroom.
I’m not a big fan of Jack the Ripper, and the descriptions, though emotionless, are quite graphic. However, they are necessary to the plot and are done with meticulous grace so as to further the story and the development of William’s character. He is rendered thoughtfully and with empathy, and his scene with Ella is superb. The prejudices of the times are portrayed faithfully and without excessive modern judgment, and the city of London is beautifully drawn as a character itself. Alice, of course, brings the feminine perspective to the mystery and goes a long way toward solving the crimes. But it is the journey and not the solution—the crimes were never truly solved—that makes this literary adventure so satisfying. And it made me want to re-read What Maisie Knew, and even more so Portrait of a Lady, with a new and more discerning eye.—CHL
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015)
Nguyen is a gifted writer, narrating the Viet Nam War from the particular perspective of a Communist spy, a liminal figure existing on the edge of Vietnamese and American cultures, never a part yet firmly entrenched. In his 307-page confession, the unnamed narrator is brilliant with words, blackly hilarious, poetic in emotion, politically enlightened, and absolutely furious. No country and no people win in this tale of war, inanity, and corrupt ideologies. Its themes are big: loyalty, betrayal, identity, and hope. The book won six well-deserved awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for others, among them two PEN awards. I and so many others await the return of this wonderful Everyman character in a sequel.—AA
Alyssa Palumbo, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
At sixteen, Simonetta Cattaneo is delighted when her father chooses, instead of a fifty-year-old merchant like the one selected for her best friend, the handsome young banker Marco Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo) as her husband. But she rejoices even more when she learns that Marco plans to present her at the glittering Florentine court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Il Magnifico. Simonetta, an exquisite blonde with a yearning for poetry and classical literature, takes Florence by storm, achieving renown as the most beautiful woman in the city within months of her marriage. Her husband’s connections, her own charms, and her friendship with Lorenzo’s wife guarantee her acceptance among the Medici and their friends. But it is her introduction to Sandro Botticelli, who takes one look at her and wants her to pose for him, that will define her short, eventful life. The best part of this rich and lovely book are the characters, especially Simonetta: a young woman of her time yet completely herself, with a full range of emotions and a refreshingly pragmatic approach to the adulation that surrounds her. How close the events portrayed here are to reality, I wouldn’t venture to guess. But give me writing like this, and I’ll dive in with glee, not asking too many questions.
Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci died of consumption in her early twenties. But as the model for Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (left, from Wikimedia Commons), she will be with us forever.—CPL