Category Archives: W.W. Norton & Company

Review: Rustication by Charles Palliser

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (November 4, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0393088723
  • Source: Publisher

It is the winter 1863. Seventeen year old Richard Shenstone has been suspended from Cambridge amid a cloud of suspicion. He seeks temporary solace in a crumbling old mansion currently inhabited by his mother and sister, Effie, now impoverished after his father’s death.  They hoped that Richard would be their salvation, continuing at the university and finding a lucrative job following. Yet when he reveals his addition to opium (among other addictions), their hopes are shattered.

The family “reunion” is less than loving, twisted and dysfunctional, to say the least.  Both sides keep secrets from one another: Richard holds back the truth about his “rustication” from the University and his mother and sister hide the truth about his father’s death and the subsequent actions that resulted in them losing everything.  Through Richard’s journals, the reader is eventually given answers about what happened at Cambridge and, slowly, as Richard discovers them, uncovers secrets about his now-deceased father’s actions.

When a series of graphic and disturbing letters are sent to Richard’s neighbors as well as his own family, he is immediately found suspect.  Adding to the horror are a series of brutal attacks against farm animals, their bodies literally ripped open and defamed. Despite Richard’s attempts to clear his name, a shroud of guilt consumes him. Neighbors indicate that he is seen walking around late at night, an act which he adamantly denies. His own family refuses to stand behind him, instead acknowledging his strange and unexplainable behavior.

What makes Rustication a truly outstanding novel are all of the “unknowns.” Richard is undeniably one of the most unreliable narrators I have come across. He’s addicted to opium and has a lustful desire for young girls.  It is only from his eyes, his viewpoint that readers get a glimpse of what is transpiring. A young man who has obviously grown used to being well-off, Richard is certain that someone will rescue him, both from his transgressions at Cambridge but his less than admirable actions now that he has returned home.

In Rustication, Palliser has created a truly phenomenal Gothic novel that you just don’t see anymore. Full of twists and turns, even when you think them impossible, flows throughout this brilliantly written novel.  While the characters are anything but likable, the world that Palliser creates in his prose, the intrigue he builds with each written word, is what will compel readers to devour this great novel.  Highly, highly recommended.

Note: There are aspects of this novel that are quite crude and graphic. They are not liberal in nature,  a necessary evil which allows readers a glimpse inside the depravity that is young Richard Shenstone.


Review: Quarantine by John Smolens

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus (September 5, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1605984183
  • Source: Publisher

The trading ship Miranda prepares to sail into the harbor in Newburyport, Massachusetts when it is boarded by the town doctor, Giles Wiggins. The ship, sailing on its own after the crew is decimated by a deadly virus, is quickly quarantined and forbidden from coming to port.

Yet when residents of the town are hit with symptoms of the virus, Giles knows he must act quick in order to avoid the spread of the sickness. He quarantines the entire port preventing any movement of ships in and out of the harbor. Additionally, he sets up a pest house in an attempt to separate the sick from the healthy. Residents with any symptoms are ordered to be taken to this facility, separating parents from children, husbands from wives. Those families who go against Giles orders prefer to smoke the illness from their homes, causing horrendous fires, devastating homes and killing entire families.

Giles’ actions upset individuals like shipbuilder Enoch Sumner, owner of the quarantined Miranda and Giles half-brother. People don’t seem to take Giles’ orders seriously, crew members and passengers of the Miranda escaping the quarantined ship via rowboats. One of these individuals is Enoch’s shady son, Samuel.

When medication intended to treat those ailing from the virus is taken by a black marketer from Boston, the ever-increasing anarchy in the town increases. Giles takes it upon himself to hunt down those responsible for stealing the valuable medication, knowing the number of victims of the disease will increase if not treated. This medication, in combination with Giles’ somewhat nontraditional practices, help slow down the spread of the illness running rampant in the port town. It is only Giles’ quick thinking and subsequent skills of deduction that permit him to find a possible cause, and thereby potential means for preventing, the fever.

Storylines run rampant in this novel, but not excessively. A dominant one is that of Leander Hatch, son of the harbormaster, is the sole survivor of his family. He’s taken in by the Sumner family, serving as a stable hand in return for a roof over his head. His relationship to Giles, and to the Sumner family, is closer than even he realizes.

Quarantine is an incredibly intense, obviously well-researched, novel of historical fiction. Readers learn a vast amount of detail regarding the history of medical practices and the state of our country in its infancy. While the characters aren’t incredibly deep or tremendously well-developed, Smolens makes up for this by creating a tremendously robust and intense historical thriller. Highly recommended.

Mx3 Guest Review: Touch by Alexi Zentner

Hardcover: 264 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (April 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0393079872

(reviewed by Sarah from Word Hits)

“Stay off the ice,” wrote Alexi Zentner, as he signed my copy of Touch. I hadn’t yet read the book, so I didn’t understand that loaded and ominous warning. Initially, I was drawn to Touch by the cover image: a dark, alluring forest brightened by an eerie glow of snow. Neither the cover, nor the author’s tease, disappointed. Touch is a riveting and spooky read.

The novel takes place in Sawgamet, a frontier town in the north woods of Canada that feels a bit like the haunted northern reaches in A Game of Thrones. But you don’t have to wade through thousands of pages before the monsters in these woods make their presence felt.

Touch is at once the coming-of-age tale of Stephen, a boy eager to join his father out in the logging cuts, and also an elegiac ode to the town and its hardships. Through memories and vivid details, Stephen’s story is interwoven with that of his father and his grandfather. The book offers a gritty, atmospheric look at daily life in Sawgamet, which was founded during the gold rush and then boomed into logging. Zentner takes us seamlessly from the 1940s back to the 1880s and in-between. These flashbacks are not at all distracting, but contribute to the narrative pull of the book.

All the while, however, Touch exudes a creepy, supernatural menace from the ghosts, witches, and monsters that lurk in the forest. “The idea of the unknown that comes with being in the woods is something that is familiar to anybody who has gotten far enough away from the city to feel truly alone,” said Zentner. “When you enter thick growths of trees, or when you are out in the wilderness at night, you can suddenly realize how alone you are, and no matter how rational or how much of a disbeliever you are, there is the opening for the unknown.”

I am deliberately elusive with plot details, because I don’t want to ruin the suspense or the surprises. About halfway through I braced myself for disappointment, wondering if the author could keep it up. But fear not, there are no LOST-like disappointments here. The ending resonates and satisfies.

Zentner, from Canada, taps into Inuit lore. “The Inuit mythology that I use in Touch is something that I very much took and altered so that it was presented through the view of the white settlers in Sawgamet,” he explained. “While some of the monsters and magic in the book are based on that Inuit mythology, all of it is turned, at least slightly, from the original tales.” Still, as a reader, I got an extra thrill when I googled these creatures and saw their rich histories.

Zentner describes his writing as “mythical realism,” grounded in lore and oral traditions, rather than the magical realism of Latin American writers. “Magical realism is often about the way that magic can insert itself into our lives,” he said. “But mythical realism is about the way that magic is already a part of our lives, but we don’t always notice it.”

“It’s important, as adults,” he added, “to remember that we should still be able to see the world with a sense of wonder.” This certainly comes through in his writing, which is beautiful, stark, and enchanting. Touch has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flahery-Dunnan First Novel prize, Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. In 2008, Zentner won both the Narrative Fiction Prize and the O. Henry Short Story award.

Touch spins out like a haunting yarn. You have the sense that this ghost story is being told to you around a campfire and that you are somehow part of it. But beware of the shadows in the trees.

Sarah is graciously providing a copy of Touch for giveaway.  To enter, please fill out this form.  The winner will be contacted via email on Friday, October 21!  Good luck to all who enter!

Review: Blood Work-A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 21, 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 0393070557
  • Source: Publisher

In 1667 Jean Denis, a physician, transfused animal blood into the body of Antoine Mauroy, a mentally ill man.  Not once, but several times.  Days later Mauroy died & Denis was accused of murder.  At this time, a battle raged on regarding the concept of transfusions: proponents saw it as a way to cure deadly illnesses while opponents worried it was going against the laws of nature.

While Blood Work is a non-fiction book it reads like fiction. Using historically accurate details, Tucker reveals the true murderers, all the while educating the reader on struggle between science & society in 17th century Europe.

Early transfusion procedures did not involve human to human transfusion, but animal to human transfusions.  The concept of transfusions were tied to society’s obsessions with blood and its purpose within he human body.  Bloodletting was a cure-all for every ailment.  Bloodletting wasn’t performed by doctors, however, but instead barber-surgeons.  The same man who gave a shave & a haircut was also entrusted with this grisly task, as well as tooth pulling and trepanning (skull drilling).  They often traveled from home to home, using the same barbaric tools on every patient. It wasn’t until the 20th century that bloodletting became and outdated and unpopular means of treating illness

Providing this bit of detail as to the mindset of society in this century allows the reader to truly grasp how “naive” society was regarding the human body.  Further study into these “treatments” were prevented by religious beliefs and morals of the time.

The author also compares the actions of our forefathers to the current debate about stem cell research. How any illnesses can society’s doctors cure & prevent if given the opportunity to study this in more detail?

Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution is multiple books in one: a historical recollection of medical practices, a murder mystery, and a study of society’s influence on advancements in the medical field.  It’s quite the dense text; it’s not something one can sit down and read in one sitting.  The level of research Holly performed to write this book astounded me; my book is literally littered with Post-it flags marking passages. Additionally, the detailed period illustrations throughout the book really add depth to the story, providing visual evidence of the practices of the time.

This book isn’t one I would recommend to just anyone.  Frankly, considering it is a nonfiction book, it’s not one that I would normally read.  But the detail provided, the murder case in the background, really got me excited about this book.  Fans of history, of social cultures & issues, and yes, fans of crime fiction & mystery, will be drawn to this book. Highly recommended.