Category Archives: Historical Fiction

2012 Books and Thanksgiving


Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Love and the Trojan War — and Today’s Election

I loved The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. But only today do I realize how much of a political statement it is. Gay marriage? Of course! Strong single parent families? Bring ’em on! Wars? Of course not!

How well Miller captures the relationship of Patroclus and Achilles, from their first meeting as boys, through the years of their education and maturation, and right into the Trojan War, where tragedy and fate and the Gods themselves cannot vanquish a love so true and so deep. But hell on wheels, both God and men sure do their very best to test the love, and to destroy it.

As much as The Song of Achilles is about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it is also an exploration of parental love (and, indeed, single parenting). Thetis, goddess mother of Achilles; Priam, father of Hector; Lycomedes, father of Deidameia; Chiron, father of no one but father figure to Patroclus (so much so that he takes on the name, son of Chiron, when seeking to disguise himself): all represent different variations of parental love, demonstrated in so many different ways but each one very real to me, like a kaleidoscope of my own experiences of loving and protecting my children. I can imagine myself fighting for them — and how horrible it is to imagine myself grieving for them, in the event of a terrible war.

And the Trojan War, as told by Homer in the Iliad and retold here by Miller, is a very, very terrible war. From the fateful choosing by Helen of Menelaus as her husband to her later dumping of hubby for the beautiful Paris, and the resulting launching of a thousand plus ships, Miller doesn’t flinch (as Homer didn’t flinch) from presenting the blood soaked brutality of battles, sieges, and division of the war booty.

And so it occurs to me that not only is The Song of Achilles a romantic love story and an exploration of parental love, but it is also, much like The Iliad, an anti-war polemic, powerful and convincing. Mitt Romney told Obama, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess…” No matter who wins today, I hope he takes to heart that message: we cannot kill our way out. We have to pull out of wars and stop pouring money into them.

Contrast the peace of Patroclus and Achilles’ youth, with the horrors of the years of battle, and the choice is clear: peace over war. Because in the end, it not Achilles’ glorious moments in battle that bring him back to his mother Thetis; it is through Patroclus remembering and relating their shared moments of love and peace, that Thetis finally discovers who he really was: a beautiful soul and a loving man.

Wonderful Mantel and her Cromwell

I just finished Bring up the Bodies — and, lo and behold, look who won the Man Booker Prize again? Hilary Mantel won, first time for Wolf Hall, which I loved, and now for Bring up the Bodies, which both mesmerized and disturbed me. Did I love it? Yes, the writing is so beautiful and her psychological acuity so sharp and true, and yet the story is so awful — damn Henry VIII, damn him, damn him! But I should be damning Cromwell as well, and I cannot, because Mantel has made him so deeply human, flawed but decent. How is that possible? The torturing of Mark Smeaton had me in tears and I dare to call Cromwell decent?Because he has the will to attend the beheading of Anne Boleyn, not to gloat but to witness? Because he knows what is his king is, and what is he not? Perhaps because Cromwell understands the possibility of tomorrow: “Wreckage can be fashioned into all sorts of things: ask any dweller on the sea shore.”

The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I’ve known my whole conscious life. I remember watching the Masterpiece Theater series when I was just seven or eight years old, and singing along with the I’m Henry the VIII, I Am song of Herman’s Hermits. I await Mantel’s further volumes — after all, we are only brought to the cusp of wife number three, Jane Seymour, in Bring Up the Bodies — how many more wonderful books are in store for us all?

Alas, poor Cromwell will not be there for all the wives and thus at most, have we one or two or three more books to hope for? Keep writing, Hilary, keep writing! I will allow Mantel a day or two off to quaff champagne and get her photo taken but then it is back to work. After all, as she writes, referring to Cromwell and his dead wife and daughters: “Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you.” Don’t let us forget, Hilary, about the figures from the past: make them all real again for us, living, breathing, tangible and comprehensible.

Mantel must be read, and I warn you, it is not always easy reading, but it is captivating and hypnotizing, as in this passage:   “Jane is facing front, like a sentry. The clouds have blown away overnight. We may have one more fine day. The early sun touches the fields, rosy. Night vapours disperse. The forms of trees swim into particularity. The house is waking up. Unstalled horses tread and whinny. A back door slams. Footsteps creak above them. Jane seems hardly to breathe. No rise and fall discernible, of that flat bosom. He feels he should walk backwards, withdraw, fade back into the night, and leave her here in the moment she occupies: looking out into England.”

Mantel herself is looking out into England now, the present time of deserved literary accolades, and the past times of needy Kings, squabbling factions, and suffering people; of court painters and backstabbing ladies in waiting and covetous but gelded men behind the scenes…gelded by the king, class, or religion, but plotting to retake their own or, at the very least, bring down Cromwell, who after all, was merely the son of a blacksmith. I know how long Cromwell will last — I know my history — but in Hilary’s hands, I know so much more.

Toby’s Room: Silence and Consequences

Pat Barker is back, with another soul-rending novel set in England during World War I.  Regeneration is one of my favorite books ever, and the Regeneration Trilogy, telling the story of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, will forever be seared into my memory.

Toby’s Room again uses historical references (women allowed in to study at The Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1900s) and real-life personages (Henry Tonks, artist, surgeon, and portraitist of men disfigured by war injuries) alongside fictional characters to illustrate the true costs and burdens of war, loss, memory, and survival.

Using a woman as a centerpiece this time, Barker again plumbs the depths of human weaknesses and strengths, and examines the hypocrisies that become necessary — or at least unavoidable — during mankind’s worst manifestation of will: war.

Elinor Brooke, ambitious artist, wants nothing to do with war.  But when her brother Toby, with whom she shares an oppressive secret (in a family of secret-keepers) goes off to serve as a medical officer, and a friend from school comes under his command, her two worlds — family and art — collide. Toby turns out to have more than one secret to keep, this time from her.

What is the price of silence? Early in the book, Barker observes, “All her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe.” In a world that makes no sense, and in fact offers more visions of nightmares than of hope, it is only the knowing of things that may finally allow Elinor to reach the bottom of her well of despair — and her rising from despair to become possible.

Telling the story, relieving the silences: it is never enough to be heard, but sometimes it is all we have to offer, and all we have to take.

Toby’s Room is another great read, created out of Barker’s bare-boned style, hard and sparse and keen; made strong with her sharp observations and descriptions; and rendered unforgettable through her full-bodied characters and unflinching portrayal of war, with all its enforced silences and brutal consequences.

This is a re-posting from the summer; now that the book is out and available, I just wanted to nudge you all to read it!

New Fav Author: David Mitchell

Over August vacation, I read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’d started it back in the spring but the first section of this partitioned book put me off, telling as it did the story of a traveler in the far reaches of the Pacific sometime in the eighteenth century (as best I could figure out where I was). The story was a good one but it was not until I entered the world of Zedelghem sometime in the early twentieth century that I fell deeply and completely into this marvelous book.

It was then I realized that the book is not partitioned but rather composed out of various movements, set in different periods of time, past, present, and future, and incorporating travel journals, romantic tragi-comedy, techno-eco thrillers, and science fiction. By the end of the book, I had met up once again with Adam Ewing, my traveler from the beginning, a man now changed by events happening to him and around him, and most certainly a hero, although not one looking for any kind of recognition as such: when accused by his father-in-law of being a worthless dreamer and told “only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!”, has the wisdom to understand, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

As much as I admired dear Adam Ewing, my heart was captured by the rascal genius Robert Frobisher, a composer and musician and sensualist, who understands the vulgarity of seeking immortality (but wants it anyway) and the necessity of making music: “one writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.” And I also fell hard for Luisa Rey, smart and tough reporter, and for Timothy Cavendish, aging publisher who gets into a terrible situation, and also for the clone Sonmi-451 — in short, all of Mitchell’s characters captivated me, much as all his tenuously but beautifully connected plots engaged and entangled me.

What I love most of all about Mitchell’s writing, both in Cloud Atlas and in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is how keenly he understands human nature, both its foibles (from sorta bad to really evil) and its fathomless well of potential goodness, in the forms of compassion, caring, and connection. He is a really, really smart writer, clever and rich in his writing, and profound in his observations, but he is also an optimist: we are all just drops in the ocean, but what a beautiful, beautiful ocean it is.

BTW, Cloud Atlas the movie is coming out in October of this year.

‘Cry, the Beloved Country’

Having been unable to see the recent Glimmerglass production of Kurt Weill’s opera Lost in the Stars, I instead read the novel upon which it is based, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The opera at Glimmerglass, directed by the fabulously gifted Tazewell Thompson, received rave reviews — from, among others, the Wall Street Journal, who praised Thompson’s “sensitive, understated production” for allowing “the deep emotion” of the opera to come through. As Francesca Zambello, general director of Glimmerglass explained, “Issues of apartheid and racism are still with us,” and a musical exploration of social issues can move the dialogue for change forward.

But until the production of Lost in the Stars moves closer to New York City (please, please, please), I hoped the book upon which it is based would satisfy. In an interview with Tazewell Thompson, he explained the novel Cry, the Beloved Country was one of his favorite novels, which left a “deep, long-lasting effect…” As an avid reader always looking for something new to read, I could not resist.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a tremendous book, a carefully structured and recklessly open (heart and soul) depiction of race relations in South Africa in the 1940s. Apartheid was not yet the official policy of South Africa and in fact there was some movement towards more liberal and humane practices of housing, education, and providing opportunities for the black communities across South Africa. But we all know how that turned out: Jan Hofmeyr, a white political leader moving for greater rights across all South African communities, died suddenly, opening the doors to the conservative Afrikaner Nationalist politics and decades of horrific oppression.

In Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton explores the desiccation of the black farming communities, as more and more young men and women leave their towns and villages to work in the mines of Johannesburg or in the homes of the burgeoning wealthy whites. Instead of painting a broad picture, Paton looks at one community and its pastor Kumalo, the umfundisi who must struggle to sustain the faith of his dwindling community amidst lands that can no longer produce food enough to feed and rivers that no longer carry water enough to drink.

The pastor’s son left months ago for Johannesburg, and has sent no word of his success or failures in the big city. Then a letter arrives for Kumalo from Johannesburg with news, and he must travel, using what little money he has, to try to uncover the secrets of a city larger and more complicated than any he could ever imagine.

What unfolds is a story not of blacks versus whites, but of the fears that keep whites and blacks apart: “Men were afraid, with a fear that was deep, deep in the heart, a fear so deep that they hid their kindness, or brought it out with fierceness and anger, and hid it behind fierce and frowning eyes.” One of the most moving lines of the book, and still so relevant today for all our present situations of strife between factions, is: “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we have turned to hating.”

Hate leads to hate — but in Paton’s novel, one courageous act turns the tide, in one place and for all time. A good man dies, and two fathers must struggle with the aftermath. This one tragic incident could have lead to more fear and greater pain, but instead, one father is moved to realize the goals of his son, and another father, to act on the possibilities of the future instead of mourning the past. Fear is put down, love is taken up, and the beloved country breathes again, for a little while at least.

Cry, the Beloved Country is a great book, a bestseller across the world in the years following its publication, and a book still so relevant, so heartbreaking, and so uplifting today. I would recommend it as a community read across the United States, and beg all readers to find within it both admonishment — to care — and encouragement to dream.

And please, bring the opera Lost in the Stars closer to New York — or Hartford, or Chicago, or Boston, Miami, Dallas, L.A., San Francisco. Big cities need big dreams, and a good nudge: Love over hate, caring over fear-mongering. A good message in this election year.

This post was also posted in The Huffington Post.

Silences and Consequences of War

Pat Barker is back, with another soul-rending novel set in England during World War I.  Regeneration is one of my favorite books ever, and the Regeneration Trilogy, telling the story of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, will forever be seared into my memory.

Toby’s Room, out this month, again uses historical references (women allowed in to study at The Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1900s) and real-life personages (Henry Tonks, artist, surgeon, and portraitist of men disfigured by war injuries) alongside fictional characters to illustrate the true costs and burdens of war, loss, memory, and survival.

Using a woman as a centerpiece this time, Barker again plumbs the depths of human weaknesses and strengths, and examines the hypocrisies that become necessary — or at least unavoidable — during mankind’s worst manifestation of will: war.

Elinor Brooke, ambitious artist, wants nothing to do with war.  But when her brother Toby, with whom she shares an oppressive secret (in a family of secret-keepers) goes off to serve as a medical officer, and a friend from school comes under his command, her two worlds — family and art — collide. Toby turns out to have more than one secret to keep, this time from her.

What is the price of silence? Early in the book, Barker observes, “All her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe.” In a world that makes no sense, and in fact offers more visions of nightmares than of hope, it is only the knowing of things that may finally allow Elinor to reach the bottom of her well of despair — and her rising from despair to become possible.

Telling the story, relieving the silences: it is never enough to be heard, but sometimes it is all we have to offer, and all we have to take.

Toby’s Room is another great read, created out of Barker’s bare-boned style, hard and sparse and keen; made strong with her sharp observations and descriptions; and rendered unforgettable through her full-bodied characters and unflinching portrayal of war, with all its enforced silences and brutal consequences.

Excitement at Sea: The Fulcrum Files

Mark Chisnell’s latest thriller, The Fulcrum Files, is a great e-book to add to your reading device — and make sure you take it to the beach, pool, or yard with you this weekend.  You are sure to find digital satisfaction, as The Fulcrum Files pleases sailing buffs, history aficionados, and espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn.  With a love story thrown in for good measure and fascinating characters from up and down the British social ladder, The Fulcrum Files is a jolly good show.

Set in England just before World War II, the characters of The Fulcrum Files all bear, to a different degree, the scars of the last World War and no one is eager to repeat the taking-on of German military might.  Most in Britain believe Germany has been de-militarized and rendered powerless through the Treaty of Versailles but there are those who suspect a buildup is going on, under Hitler’s direction and Europe’s nose. Sailor Ben Clayton, pacifist and anti-war, wants only to continue his job working for the wealthy Harold Dunwood, building a racing yacht worthy of the Americas Cup and courting his lovely Lucy, daughter of a fisherman.

But when good friend and mentor Stanley Arbethwaite is killed in a bizarre accident, Ben gets caught up in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up, and murder. 

The Fulcrum Files reminded me of two old favorites of mine, Drink to Yesterday and Toast to Tomorrow, written by Manning Coles, the pen name of a duo who wrote twenty-two spy mysteries arising out of their own very real experiences spying for Britain during both World Wars.

Mark Chisnell has no spying experience, as far as I know, but he is a renowned sailor and his expertise comes through; joined with his riveting plotting and engaging characters, Chisnell provides a good read.  Another one of Chisnell’s novels, The Defector, is now just 99 cents from Amazon and I will be adding it to my Kindle, for more thrilling reading.

Words I Love To Hear

“I just read some great books on vacation.”

Those are words I love to hear, because then I am in for the treat of discovering new books to read books, books to be on my to-read list.   I just read some great books on vacation, so get your pens out — time to add them to your list.

A Welsh friend gave me Rape of the Fair Country by Alexander Cordell.  Cordell himself wasn’t Welsh; he was born in Ceylon in 1914 to English parents. But after being injured during World War Two, he was sent to Wales to recuperate and he promptly fell in love with the people, the language, and the history of this small but vital slice of the British Isles. He wrote Rape of the Fair Country in the 1950s and it met with huge success.  It is a novel of historical fiction recounting the uprisings in Wales in mid 1800s, in which Welsh miners protested the greed of the iron mine owners, the acquiescence of the Church in upholding the owners’ vicious grip on the mining community, and the collaboration of the English government in keeping miners and their families living and working like slaves, with no chance of bettering their lives, no protection in the harsh working conditions, and no hope that things would be better for their children.

Rape of the Fair Country could be all gloom and violence, horror and dismay, given the working situation of the miners, the hard and dangerous labor of men, women, and children, and the utter repression of gentry and church, government and Queen (young Victoria  just installed on the throne).  But instead it is a lively, ribald, and thoroughly compelling and robust portrait of the Mortymer family, and all the neighbors, friends, and foes that make up their mining community.  Cordell lusciously portrays the Mortymers’ beliefs, rituals, and customs, and their eventual and thoroughly necessary awakening to the power they must exercise in a world seeking so hard to hold them back, and keep them down.

I couldn’t stop reading Rape of the Fair Country: I just loved it, and I have gone ahead and ordered the next two book in the trilogy, to follow the Mortymer family through the years, and I hope to a better place in Wales, and in the world.

For something completely different, next I read The Damage Done, the first in a now on-going mystery series written by Hilary Davidson.  It was a great quick read, riveting and rollicking, and I loved the heroine (even when she annoyed me), travel writer Lily Moore whose heroin addicted sister turns up dead in the bathtub and Lily must uncover who, what, and why — or risk replaying the family history of self-destruction over and over again.  I look forward to more from Davidson (the latest, The Next One to Fall came out in February) and grateful that I found her in a bookstore in Quebec, as I had never heard of her before.  By the way, kudos to Quebec, where I passed so many independent book stores while trekking through the streets.

 

And finally, my son George handed me the first in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger.

 It took me a chapter or two to get into the strange, harsh world of The Dark Tower but once in, I was hooked. King is a good story teller, no doubt about it.  I have added the next on the series to my list of must-reads, The Drawing of the Three.

 

 

 

 

Going on vacation this summer?  I recommend Quebec for its bookstores, ice cream, bike paths and the great croissants found at Baguette & Cie on Rue St. Paul.   If you read anything great, be sure and let me know. 

Great Summer Read: Pure by Andrew Miller

I wrote this review a month or two ago but now am urged to repost because (1) the book is now available in the United States; and (2) my mother, a voracious reader, just read Pure and called it one of the best she’s read in a long time. And I loved Pure too!

Pure by Andrew Miller is a mesmerizing book, a stunner of historical fiction set in 1785 Paris, when an ambitious provincial engineer is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church, and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. It quickly becomes apparent that Jean-Pierre Baratte has not been commissioned for the task so much as indentured, and his debt will only be paid when the deed is done. Meanwhile, Paris boils and roils around him, revolution is in the air, and the future beckons Baratte even more vigorously than the past threatens to condemn him. Pure air, pure reason, pure ambition is what Baratte seeks in his future, but can anything ever be made pure, once the taint of decay has set in?

Miller writes beautifully, creating lingering images of people and places, as when he describes the church organist, “his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the center of Les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women” or when he describes the clogged vein of a street where cheese is sold (heaven for me!) and the smells of so many cheeses overpower, finally, the stench of the cemetery: “Jean-Pierre has no idea what most of them are or where they have come from but one he immediately recognizes and his heart lifts as if he had caught sight of some dear old face from home. Pon-l’Eveque! Norman grass! Norman air!” I was surprisingly moved by the scene when Baratte goes back to the mine where he used to work, to seek out manpower for his project and is invited to a poor dinner of cow head: “it tastes, poor thing, as though pickled in its own tears.”

There are historical figures in the cast of characters, including Doctor Guillotin, but most of the players are drawn from Miller’s own substantial imagination: the prostitute who resembles the young and hated Queen, Marie Antoinette; the young woman who grieves for the graveyard so much she tries murder as a way to save it; the church organist who has played for nobody for years while plotting out changes the future is sure to bring; the Flemish miner with violet eyes and his French master with the decaying soul. The protagonist, Jean-Pierre Baratte, is a complex man, a man of reason wound up by matters wholly outside the realm of reasoning or reckoning.

Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities. Either way, the book is a fantastic reading pleasure, a book to be reread and savored all over again, and a book to keep always, for returning to when Paris on the cusp of Revolution beckons.