5/5. For this and other book reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In Lyndsay Faye's Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, s...more5/5. For this and other book reviews, visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~ In Lyndsay Faye's Seven for a Secret, it is 1840s New York City, where crime, social tensions, and playing-for-keeps politics form a potent, sometimes deadly milieu. Floods of Irish immigrants are arriving daily to escape the potato famine; people die of starvation with regularity, and there isn't enough work to go around. Excitement, danger, and various illegalities are the norm, and Timothy Wilde, copper star of the newly minted New York Police Department, is doing his best to figure out whodunit. But whodunit? is never an easy question in this twisty, brilliantly plotted world.
Seven is the sequel to Faye's Gods of Gotham, which introduced us to Tim, a barman who lost his job and a good deal of his looks in the Great New York City Fire in 1845; his larger-than-life brother Valentine, drug addict and pillar of the Democratic Party; and the formation of the copper star force (hence the modern-day term "cops"), set up by the Party to patrol the streets and stop violent crime before it starts (and I highly recommend that if you haven't read Gotham, you start the series there). In this outing, set six months later, Tim is still on special duty: Police Chief George Washington Matsell has noted Tim's knack for figuring things out and taken him off the usual rounds. Tim is tasked with the novel job of detecting who committed crimes after the fact rather than being a beat cop who tries to stop crimes before or as they happen. So it's perhaps no surprise that when Lucy Adams, a free black woman, comes home to discover that her young son and her sister have been kidnapped by slave catchers, she goes to Tim for help. But this incident is only the gateway to a much deeper, murkier mystery involving Lucy Adams' family. When a murder is layered atop the kidnappings, abolitionist Tim must work within the confines of the Party and the police force, and alongside the free black members of the New York Committee of Vigilance to help Lucy's family and figure out just who the villains of the tale really are.
Faye has penned an incredibly detailed world here, bringing 1840s New York to life in a way that makes you feel as though you are walking down those cobbled streets yourself. The neighbourhood of Five Points, the mansions on Fifth Avenue, and the filthy hovels where poor chimney sweeps sleep all play a role, along with brothels, rich Democrat abodes, and the Halls of Justice where Tim works—colloquially called The Tombs.
The book revels in the evocation of the city in all its glory and grit, and is exactingly researched, from the dialogue (including the use of "flash," the slang dialect used by the lower classes—and criminals) and setting, to historical facts and contexts. This is no small feat. For example, using the Democratic Party's manipulation of Irish immigrants for votes and the tension this fostered between the Irish and the black populations of New York not just as a backdrop but as part of the plot takes a lot of skill. Yet with all the density of description, politics, period language, the book is never dull, nor boastful of its research. It all comes together to provide a complete, real world for a compelling murder mystery. Like Gotham before it, I was kept guessing throughout the book, never quite sure who the real villain would be.
Oh, there are many villains to choose from. The central plot is set in motion when two free black citizens of New York aresnatched to be sold as "runaways" in the south. Abolition and slavery loom large. Tim is told to keep his abolitionism quiet for the good of his job, and the indignities of entrenched racism appear throughout. White Tim can't ride in a hansom cab with his black friend Julius Carpenter. George Higgins, the head of the Committee of Vigilance, is a better speculator on the stock market than anyone else in the city, and yet he has to do all his business through a white intermediary who takes a third of all his profits. Black citizens cannot testify in a court of law. And this only touches on the cruelty and violence that form the larger picture. Slave catchers, crooked cops, and politicians who want the upper hand at all costs close in on Lucy Adams' family, and her secrets.
What really draws such a tour de force together is the superb characterization. Every character is realistic and nuanced. Older brother Valentine is as fierce in his love for Tim—a love that Tim himself has trouble believing—as he is in his quest for intoxicants and political power. The brothers' complicated history forms much of the backbone of the book, and of Tim's own world view. He keeps a running tally of Val's vices:
"Narcotics, alcohol, bribery, violence, whoring, gambling, theft, cheating, extortion, sodomy, spying, and forgery," I spat back. "A nice even dozen now." "Oh." He smiled, teeth gleaming. "Nacky system you've got there. Add lying, I'd no intention of ever telling you."
Tim himself has a brilliantly strong narrative voice. Every sentence of the book is infused with the way Tim speaks and thinks, and he is always entertaining, even when grumbling (which is often). He also does a good job of reminding the old reader and introducing the new to what happened in Gotham. No storyline is dropped between the two: major characters who went through major trauma in book one are still present and still dealing with the aftermath these six months later. In particular Tim's friendships with Bird Daly and Mercy Underhill continue in this book and play a part in the mystery at hand.
Seven for a Secret is historical fiction and mystery writing at its finest. Strong characters, great detail, and a plot that both keeps you guessing and feeds into sweeping historical concerns makes for a serious page turner...and will leave you with a hankering for a third installment.(less)
What can you say about a girl with a hole through her middle, or a boy with bees living in his stomach? Or immortal pigeons and impossible creatures? They’re pretty peculiar. In Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’s sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob Portman also calls them his friends. Jacob is Peculiar too. His particular talent is for seeing the monsters, particularly wights and hollowgast, that stalk the Peculiar children for unknown but undoubtedly sinister reasons. And when last we left them, they were on the run from their time loop haven in 1940 after rescuing their ymbryne, or bird-shapeshifting protector, Miss Peregrine from evil hollow clutches.
And the fact that Jacob is from our present, trapped in the wartorn British 1940 countryside, is the least of his worries. The hollowgast are on the Peculiar Children’s trail, and Miss Peregrine is injured and unable to escape her bird form. Worse, the other Peculiar havens have been destroyed, their ymbrynes kidnapped. If this seems like a lot to catch up on, it is: you don’t want to pick up Hollow City without having read the first volume of Miss Peregrine adventures.
But once you’re caught up, Hollow City is a worthy second installment. Dropping directly into the action without a breather, we find the children having just rescued Miss Peregrine and rowing their way from their destroyed island to Mainland England. The gast have infiltrated the German army and are after the children in submarines and planes. The children’s flight takes them from a hidden Peculiar menagerie to a Gyspy camp to the heart of London and their only hope of saving Miss Peregrine before she’s trapped in bird form forever.
Like its predecessor, the immediate draw of Hollow City is Riggs’s use of very strange antique photographs he’s culled from flea markets and estate sales. These creepy (one shows a girl floating off the ground, another a child with a mouth on the back of her head) and atmospheric (dead horses strewn along a country road, trees growing from a skull-shaped island) images served as Riggss’ guide for shaping his story. He had the photos first, and he wrote the story from them. The book is positively peppered with pictures, and they are very much a part of the story, adding to the tone and narrative. While the story could stand alone without them, it would be the poorer for it. You’ll want to read this book to see what visual the next page brings. The writing is cinematic in description and scope. This series will easily be adapted into movies (it’s already been optioned by Tim Burton).
In this one, Riggs wisely weeds out a few Peculiar characters for the flight to London. By concentrating on a smaller number of them, the children are given a chance to stand on their own and escape one-dimensional characterization. Free from their safe, familiar time loop and the watchful eye of their ymbryne in human form, the children have a chance to show fear and bravery, as well as their advanced age (most of them are pushing a hundred, though they still look and mostly act like children). They’re able to grow, and so are the hollowgast, whose powers and motivations become clearer and scarier in this volume.
The weak note is Jacob, whose thoughts and dialogue are often too stiff and adult. Jacob is meant to be a teenaged boy from our present, but he comes across as stilted and not quite real. While this formal voice works well for the children, who have been living in 1940 for decades, it feels false in Jacob And we never get as clear a picture of him as we do of the people surrounding him. This stiltedness sometimes extends to the shape the story takes, as well. Because the story is formed around existing strange pictures, plot points at times feel artificial, taking the story to a place it might not organically have gone if such a photograph didn’t exist and Riggs didn’t want to include it.
Even so this is a highly readable book, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. Harrowing chases over sea and land, new discoveries about Peculiar people, animals, mythology, geography, and history, and the urgency of finding a way to save Miss Peregrine make for a breathless pace. The Peculiar plight is combined with a World War II setting, upping the danger factor the children find themselves in. New characters are interesting and move the plot forward, and it’s exciting read about the children using their Peculiar powers to get out of suspenseful scrapes. And the book itself, with its layout and paper and footers and chapter dividers, is a thing of beauty. (Avoid the ebook. I read the first installment on my Kindle, and it loses a lot of its inherent creepiness when it’s not a beautifully crafted object.)
While this book tends toward the artificial and at times slightly awkward because of its incorporation of preexisting photographs, it’s nevertheless a highly worthwhile strange, escapist read. Its world is well imagined, its circumstances dire. Like the first book, this one ends on a big cliffhanger. I didn’t see the ending coming at all, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.(less)
I read the first three in this series when I was a kid and it stayed with me. Delightful to re-read it as an adult. A book that deserves to be better...moreI read the first three in this series when I was a kid and it stayed with me. Delightful to re-read it as an adult. A book that deserves to be better known today.(less)
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brot...more4/5. For this and other book reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.
Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.
That’s it, really, as far as action goes. Reid’s style is sweetly self-deprecating, poking gentle fun at himself in a way that’s never grating. Pointing out his various fears (what if she doesn’t have a good time? What if she doesn’t like his place? Why doesn’t he have more food for her in his home? Most of all, what on earth will they talk about for that length of time?!), he allows Grandma to be the star throughout his narrative. She takes her time in all things, moving slowly, eating daintily. She enjoys a good meal out. And she is the biggest non-complainer I’ve ever come across. She’s genuinely delighted by every small kindness, every opportunity. Even as Reid frets that he hasn’t enough activities to do with her, she’s pleased to curl up in a chair and just read for a few hours—she never has time to do that at home. Grandma’s attitude is a thing of beauty.
At the beginning, Reid is a bit apprehensive about the upcoming trip. He hasn’t spent this much one-on-one time with his grandmother, ever. Reid and his grandma have known each other all his life, of course, but they have a relationship that is probably familiar to many readers: they are sort of strangers as adults, familiar with each other only in the context of child/elderly relative. Although they don’t go very far geographically, theirs is a shared trip towards a closer relationship, getting reacquainted in a way that deepens their respect and affection for one another. There are silences at the beginning; Reid wonders after a bit of sherry filched from his parents’ places loosens the flow of conversation if he can just keep Grandma a bit tipsy for the whole trip. As they spend more time together, though, they begin to tell stories and to really talk to one another. This is one of the books major themes: the importance of shared stories and memories. The stories go both ways, with Iain sharing tales of his childhood that Grandma didn’t know, and Grandma telling him about her fascinating life story, including as a nurse in the war, and how she met his grandfather. Grandma apologizes for talking so much, but Iain is delighted to listen to her. Seeing the quantity and quality of their discussions improve as they get used to one another’s presence is a wonderful path to follow along with.
Reid’s portrayal of grandma is incredibly human. She lives and breathes on the page, a wholly real person who is never reduced to a cliché. She is frail and forgetful at times. She loves cheese. She is never the “wise old elder” stereotype, even though she certainly has wisdom to share. As they talk and discover how much they have in common (as well as the many ways their worldviews and life experience have rendered their outlooks very different), themes of loneliness, and the difference between being lonely and being alone, emerge. Perhaps my favourite motif throughout is the idea of “treating” yourself or your loved one. Grandma says this regularly, and it’s not just a throwaway phrase: when she goes to the mall on a weekday morning for a breakfast out, she is giving herself a treat, and when she insists on paying for dinner with Iain, she is giving a treat to him. It’s just a lovely concept, to accept small favours and kindness with a little extra grace and gratitude.
This is a lovely read, a quiet story where not a lot happens, and that’s okay. I lost my grandma not too long ago, and this book made me miss her keenly. I was lucky to have her into my late twenties, equally lucky to have a good relationship with her. She used to love telling me stories about her years as a teenager living in Toronto, and when I visited her in her small town, I would show her photos of the Distillery District or tell her about walking down Yonge Street where she once walked. It was pleasure to spend a week with Iain Reid and his grandma, to think about my grandma, to ruminate on the importance of telling stories and sharing memories.(less)
Want to join me in reading Max Brooks' epic zombie pandemic novel, told entirely in eyewitness testimonials and interviews? Check out the World War Z...moreWant to join me in reading Max Brooks' epic zombie pandemic novel, told entirely in eyewitness testimonials and interviews? Check out the World War Z Readalong at EditorialEyes Book Blog!
~*~ Part 3, "The Great Panic", is now live! From a feral child to a haunted Russian prisoner, from the underground catacombs in Greenland to the ship-breaking yards in India, the war begins in earnest.
Part 2, "Blame": The head of the CIA, a member of the joint chiefs, the creator of a fake vaccine, a White House chief of staff, and a suburban mom-turned-survivor-turned-mayor talk about the beginnings of the great panic--and how everyone else is to blame.
Part 1, "Introduction" and "Warnings": In which we meet the interviewer and hear how the pandemic started, in the days before anyone really believed that the dead could come back to murderous life. . . or did governments know all along?(less)