My Thoughts on Destiny of the Republic

Book cover.
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Assassin Charles Guiteau believed he was doing God’s work in killing President James Garfield. Surely he would be rewarded with the consulship to France he long sought; surely Vice-president Chester Author would be delighted and grateful by Guiteau’s deed; surely General William Tecumseh Sherman would come to free Guiteau from his jail cell; and surely the American people would celebrate and insist he become president, himself.

Guiteau’s flights of fancy followed his flights from creditors all his life; he would bluff and borrow then skip town, chasing one idea after the next till he hit upon the idea that killing the president would turn his fortunes around. The man’s delusions were astounding to read.

Guiteau is only one part of Candice Millard’s well-researched, but never for a moment dull, book on the events surrounding the assassination of the twentieth president. What unfolds are tales of life’s ironies interwoven with tragic results for Garfield, his physician D. Willard Bliss, Alexander Graham Bell, Arthur, the spoils system, Robert Lincoln, and on and on.

For a man who never sought to be president, there were few so worthy to be one as Garfield.

My Thoughts on Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild by Nicola GriffithHild is an amazing historical novel. I can’t recall another recent novel that so superbly puts me in the world the author creates. The work seems effortless. Whenever I open the book, it’s only a sentence or two till I’m back in seventh-century Britain. Author Nicola Griffith’s skill is par excellence. The narrative is lush, scented, textured, alive.

The book is Griffith’s recreation of the life of the very real Hild (Saint Hilda of Whitby) based on the scant documents of her and that period that survive today. Seamlessly woven into the real historic figures and events of the period are Griffith’s fictional characters and circumstances.

Hild is a young girl and niece to King Edwin. In the midst of clashing tribes, Christianity is making inroads on the island, replacing the old gods. But superstition still holds, and Hild’s visions come to pass, earning the king’s trust and favor, while also earning the enmity of the chief priest Paulinus, who sees her as a rival and a witch. As her influence grows so does the danger.

Finished Reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Cover of Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of eight short stories written by Karen Russell. Each story takes the reader to a different time and a different place. All are vivid and touched with magical realism, though Russell’s own writing borders on otherworldly – effortlessly drawing you into these fantastical, sometimes funny, stories.

  • “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” features vampires seeking to slake their thirst on something other than blood.
  • “Reeling for the Empire” is about captive girls made into silkworms.
  • “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” is where a boy discovers these birds are hoarding stolen bits of the future.
  • “Proving Up” is a ghostly tale set during the homesteading period of U.S. history.
  • “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is my favorite (perhaps due to my fondness for U.S. presidential history). A funny speculation about what happened to some of these presidents after they died.
  • “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a no-nonsense primer for hard core fans of Team Krill who trek to the bottom of the world for the annual competition.
  • “The New Veterans” is about a massage therapist whose patient has an unusual tattoo that changes beneath her hands.
  • “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” is about a group of bullies who discover a scarecrow that has an unsettling likeness to that of their victim.

My Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

Cover of novel Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.

What if vampires exist and the 16th president of the United States made a vow to destroy each and every one of them? It’s the central idea of the novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Lincoln’s hatred for the undead begins when he learns that a vampire took his mother’s life. Hot-headed and heedless of danger, he clumsily seeks them out, swinging his trusty ax into the heads and hearts of those he finds. Along the way, he gains allies and a patron, who reveals to Lincoln that the vampires have a grander design for America, and he, Lincoln, has a greater destiny in opposing them.

The idea certainly intrigued me, but while there are admirable elements found in the novel, on the whole, the idea was more gimmick than story.

The writing quality is strong and the author captures the voice of Lincoln and those around him with apparent authenticity (as well as this non-Lincoln-expert can tell). To the point where, especially in passages of Lincoln’s younger life, the writing could pass for creative non-fiction. The voice is authoritative and engaging, painting vivid scenes of young Lincoln, his father and mother, and their hardscrabble years. The details are either well researched or well fabricated. (Less convincing are the “historical” pictures interspersed in the novel.)

But the life of Lincoln is as well known as any historical figure can be. What is really there to add? Where is there room? We all the know the arc of his story. The novel is much like those photographs — something lifted from real history and manipulated to insert a vampire. And like those photographs, flat, bordered, awkward.

I had joked on Twitter while reading this that the story would have been better served if it was Millard Fillmore: Vampire Hunter. Take the most forgettable, inconsequential of U.S. presidents and give him the story of fighting vampires. There would be more potential for humor and suspense. Whereas Lincoln might turn over in his grave with this novel — hadn’t he enough real horror and tragedy in his life? — Fillmore might sit up and read it. A chance at being talked about, remind the world he existed as the last Whig party president and opener of relations with Japan.

I was willing to read further than I otherwise would have as the first third of the book was slow to start. What didn’t help also was the framing, such as it was. The narrator exists in present day and is entrusted with the secret journals of Abraham Lincoln. The narrative flits between the narrator (third-person) and the journal entries (first-person). I did not care for this, finding it distracting too often.

Also, the narrator has no story of his own. He does not even complete the “frame,” as he doesn’t “appear” after the setup in the introduction. It’s as though he was forgotten. And it isn’t convincing that the narrator, as much as we are to know him at all, could relate the tale in the voice and with the knowledge that he does.

At the bottom of it, I guess I just wasn’t that interested in the  fate of any of the characters. Again the writing is good, but somehow it failed to  connect with me.

Book review: The Impersonator by Mary Miley

Book cover of The Impersonator by Mary Miley.
The Impersonator by Mary Miley.

Leah Randall has been acting all her life, but her talent for timing, impressions, and improvisation will be put to the test. Success will mean more money than she can count, while failure will mean prison, perhaps worse.

After seeing her vaudeville performance twice, Oliver Beckett is convinced that Leah is in fact his long lost niece Jessie Carr. The resemblance is unmistakable. No one knows what had happened to the girl who disappeared seven years ago, but if she turns up by her 21st birthday, she’ll inherit the family fortune.

Perhaps Leah is not Jessie, but all the same, Oliver persuades her that with his help, she can convince the family and the fortune’s trustees’ that she is truly Jessie. Of course, Oliver will expect his share, enough to sustain his appetites for the rest of his life.

Well prepared by Oliver’s lessons on Jessie’s life, home, and family, Leah journeys to San Francisco to meet with the trustees, then live at the Carr family home, Cliff House, at the very edge of Dexter, Oregon. The new Jessie overcomes suspicions, reuniting with her family as though she had never left. But one family member is not convinced at all. Then the bodies of strangled women begin appearing.

The Impersonator is superbly written, transporting the reader to 1924 with expert, passing details such as the “four pans of oxalic acid” to keep bugs out of beds, the contemporary attitudes on race and women, and the yet-to-be-famous faces. A delightful peek at the days of vaudeville and life during Prohibition, the novel moves along nicely, maintaining the mystery of the true Jessie’s ultimate fate, and concluding with a smashing finish.

This debut novel is a personal pleasure, as I have read Mary Miley’s early drafts of it. I am thrilled to read its published, polished, and justly-laureled form.