Tag Archives: history

Rasputin’s Shadow by Raymond Khoury

Blog Tour: Rasputin’s Shadow by Raymond Khoury (Dutton Books; 384 pages; $27.95).

About The Book:

On a cold, bleak day in 1916, all hell breaks loose in a mining pit in the Ural Mountains.  Overcome by a strange paranoia, the rasputinminers attack one another, savagely and ferociously.  Minutes later, two men–a horrified scientist and Grigory Rasputin, trusted confidant of the czar, hit a detonator, blowing up the mine to conceal all evidence of the carnage.

In the present day, FBI agent Sean Reilly’s search for Reed Corrigan, the CIA mind-control spook who brainwashed Reilly’s son, takes a back seat to a new, disturbing case.  A Russian embassy attache seems to have committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth-story window in Queens.  The apartment’s owner, a retired physics teacher from Russia, has also gone missing.

Joined by Russian FSB agent Larisa Sokolova, Reilly’s investigation into the old man’s identity will uncover a desperate search for a small, mysterious device, with consequences that reach back in history, and if placed in the wrong hands could have a devastating impact on the modern world.

 

About The Author:

khoury

Raymond Khoury is the bestselling author of The Devil’s Elixir, The Last Templar, The Sanctuary, The Sign, and The Templar Salvation.  An acclaimed screenwriter and producer for both television and film, Khoury now lives in London with his wife and two children.

 

Bookmagnet Says:

I have been a fan of Raymond Khoury ever since I stumbled upon The Last Templar back in 2006.  Unlike a lot of other writers of mysteries and thrillers, Khoury has managed not only to sustain my interest in his stories and his recurring characters but he also stimulates my mind by delving into history.  His newest novel Rasputin’s Shadow is no exception.  From its explosive (literally) beginning to a stunning climax to a satisfying conclusion, Rasputin’s Shadow is the thriller of the year. Khoury effectively blends mystery, action, and intrigue with history, producing a compelling, pleasing story.   If the late, great Tom Clancy was the master of the Twentieth-Century thriller, Raymond Khoury is his Twenty-First Century successor.

 

Mini Q&A with Author Raymond Khoury

Rasputin is known as one of the most elusive figures in Russian history, but what specifically drew you to him as a character for your upcoming novel, RASPUTIN’S SHADOW?

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

As with previous novels, it was an unplanned convergence of influences. Very early into my research on the central theme of this book, mind control and how much we know about the way our brains work, I read about a Russian scientist who had been carrying out some pretty shocking “Manchurian candidate”-style experiments during the Cold War. He was described as having “Rasputin-like powers.” And that just lit up inside me. It was the perfect historical parallel for what I was working on, the big daddy of mind control, and the fact that Rasputin’s story had also taken place in Russia was too irresistible to ignore. The story fell into place within seconds. Like Hannibal Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Your novels contain a lot of historical truths, so how do you go about researching your subject before you dive into the story?  Did anything surprise you during your research for this book?

I probably do a lot more research than I need to for my novels, for several reasons: part of it is simple curiosity: I just find it interesting to educate myself about the topics and themes I’m curious about, and it’s so easy to get swept up in surfing from one link to the next. Also, I have this obsession with wanting every detail in my books, historical or otherwise, to be accurate. I remember being on a panel with Harlan Coben once, and he said, “we’re fiction writers, we can just make things up.” And he’s right, of course, we do—a lot. But I feel a need to know exactly what a Turkish horse-trader in the 13th century would have been wearing, what he would have eaten, what his sword (scimitar!) would have looked like, before writing him into a book. And that takes a lot of research that can only end up as a sentence here or a word there. The big scene at the end of The Templar Salvation, for instance, the plane and the sea, or the one where the Italian gets chucked out of it earlier on: I went through every detail of those sequences with a pilot who owns that exact plane, and we made sure everything I wrote was not only correct, but doable.

In past reviews your writing has been called “cinematic.” Do you consciously try to write this way? Or do you think that thrillers naturally lend themselves to this style of writing?

I see my stories visually, it’s hugely important for me. I see the scenes unfurling in my mind as I’m writing them, and I often sketch out storyboards for the big set pieces to “direct” them as I write them out. Thrillers naturally lend themselves to this style, and to be frank with you, I’m often disappointed by thrillers that turn out to have limited scale in their visuals. What I mean is that as a writer, you can almost take any scene and ratchet up the suspense and the scale without necessarily turning it into ridiculous, comic-book-like, over-the-top mindless action. Think of a director like Michael Mann, for instance, and the bank robbery scene from “Heat.” Or any scene from “Collateral.” Or read “Marathon Man,” which is exactly similar, beat for beat, to the great movie it spawned. In my mind, a real thriller should have a ‘cinematic’ aspect, but it’s crucial to keep it within the confines of reality.

What impact, if any, do you think your experience as a screenwriter and producer has on your ability to paint a vivid description in your novel writing?

Huge impact, no doubt. I’m always told by readers that they could “see” the book like a movie while reading it. I don’t believe in taking shortcuts. If the FBI is shadowing a hostage trade-off between a group of Russian mafiya thugs and some Korean gangsters in some remote Brooklyn shipyard in the dead of the night, that’s an opportunity for a major set-piece with a lot of suspense, it deserves to be cinematic. I believe good writing should conjure up vivid visuals in the mind of the reader and should kick up as much adrenaline in him or her as a great movie would.

What types of characters do you most enjoy writing?

I enjoy spending time with all my characters. RASPUTIN’S SHADOW probably has the largest cast of characters I’ve used in a novel, and I really enjoyed creating them and exploring their own foibles. That said, I usually enjoy writing the main antagonists most: characters like Vance in THE LAST TEMPLAR, the Hakeem in THE SANCTUARY, Zahed in THE TEMPLAR SALVATION, and El Brujo in THE DEVIL’S ELIXIR (no spoilers about the new book here!). They’re never clear-cut bad guys, nothing’s black or white. They have histories, they have reasons for doing what they’re doing, we need to wonder what we’d have done if we had been in their situation. The grey area of human nature is very interesting to me. I also hugely enjoy writing the historical characters: Rasputin and Misha, or course, in the new book; but also, Sebastian and Theresia’s love story in THE SANCTUARY and Conrad and Maysoon’s one in THE TEMPLAR SALVATION are particular favourites.

 Raymond-Khoury-168x120

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (Riverhead Books; 432 pages; $27.95).

Throughout history and fiction, women have disguised themselves as men; it is quite uncommon, though, for a boy to disguise good-lord-bird1.jpghimself as a girl and continue the charade for decades.  However, that is just what Little Onion does in James McBride’s brilliant and exhilarating novel The Good Lord Bird.  McBride re-imagines the life of John Brown and his followers while simultaneously fashioning a remarkable and amusing character in the form of Little Onion.  Through Little Onion’s eyes, McBride recreates Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, one of the most crucial chapters in American history and one that helped spark the Civil War.

History has shown us just how charismatic Brown could be, but the magnetic Little Onion steals the spotlight from Brown time and again.  Born in Kansas Territory, young Henry Shackleford is a slave when pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions make the state a battleground, hence the term “Bleeding Kansas.”  Brown arrives and gets involved in an argument in a local barber shop.  The ensuing act of violence forces Brown to flee—with Henry in tow.  The kicker is that Brown thinks Henry is a girl named Henrietta.  Henry does not tell Brown the truth about his gender.

“Truth is,” McBride writes, “lying come natural to all Negroes during slave time, for no man or woman in bondage ever prospered stating their true thoughts to the boss.  Much of colored life was an act, and the Negroes that sawed wood and said nothing lived the longest.  So I weren’t going to tell him nothing about me being a boy.”

If that does not make you laugh or at least smile, consider this: Henry is skilled at the art of zinging one-liners and entertains even in the gravest of situations.  When Brown goes off on tangents, Henry admits, “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but, being he was a lunatic, I nodded my head yes.”

The young slave “girl” makes a big impression on Brown when “she” eats his good-luck charm—an onion.  From that moment on, Brown calls Henry “Little Onion.”  McBride’s two main characters play well off each other and make for humorous reading.

Little Onion’s masquerade also has a serious side and allows McBride to portray Henry as a trickster.  Henry’s charade is a variation of the traditional African trickster tale.  These stories, which originated in Africa and were part of the oral history of African American slaves, served as thinly-disguised social protest against white masters and featured animals as the main characters instead of real people.  In these parables, small, weak, seemingly powerless animals used their cunning to outwit larger, powerful creatures.  A rabbit might represent the weaker animal while a wolf stood for the larger one as is the case with the Briar Rabbit tales.  Whites saw such stories as fables, nothing more.  For slaves, the tales were altogether different and meaningful.  The allegories symbolically assaulted the powerful, who worked to ensnare slaves but who became themselves ensnared.  Trickster tales sought to upset traditional social roles and served as a vehicle allowing slaves to ridicule whites and get away with it.  By fooling John Brown, Henry sees himself as one-upping the white man.  His ruse works well, and that is a credit to McBride’s ingenuity.

James_McBrideMcBride cleverly juxtaposes drama and history with comedy and humor.  Uproarious laughs pepper Little Onion’s encounters with historical figures.  The funniest of these occurs when he meets Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), reformer, abolitionist, and former slave.  Upon their first meeting, Little Onion says, “Morning, Fred.”  Douglass is livid: “Don’t you know you are not addressing a pork chop, but rather a fairly considerable and incorrigible piece of the American Negro diaspora?”  A few pages later, an inebriated Douglass makes a pass at Henrietta and mistakenly calls her “Harlot” before finally saying “Don’t marry two women at once…Colored or white, it’ll whip you scandalous” (In The Good Lord Bird, Douglass commits bigamy as he is married to Anna Murray-Douglass and Ottilie Assing, a German journalist.  In actuality, Douglass never married Assing, but McBride’s vision makes for interesting reading).

Henry Shackleford may be a figment of McBride’s imagination but as you read this novel you forget that it’s fiction. McBride brings his characters to life like you’ve never seen them before.  A multi-faceted and marvelous story, The Good Lord Bird explores identity, home, place, survival, slave life, and how far a man will go for a cause.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-telling one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.

Breaking News–The Good Lord Bird has been longlisted for a 2013 National Book Award in fiction.  It’s my pick because I absolutely love it!

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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

maids version

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).

No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone.  Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed.  The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind.  Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.

Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in ThMaid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel.  A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928.  The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers.  Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion.  Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed.  Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.

Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it.  Go on and tell it.”  Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words.  It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart.  He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.

Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression.  When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community.   Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of  an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered.  With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Book Review: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoonsnow-hunters1.jpg

(Simon & Schuster; 208 pages; $22)

“That winter, during a rainfall,” Yohan “arrived in Brazil,” Paul Yoon, 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree, writes in his lyrical and arresting debut Snow Hunters.   Yohan, a North Korean war refugee, seeks a new life in Brazil but cannot escape his past, even half a world away, in a port town on the country’s coast.  Yoon’s quiet yet wise protagonist and his measured yet moving language drive this relatively short novel.  Snow Hunters may be 194 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch.

Yoon opens Snow Hunters with the kind of intense sentiment that comes to exemplify the novel as a whole.    As the cargo ship on which he is a passenger docks in a Brazilian harbor, Yohan helps the crew unload.  A sailor offers him a blue umbrella.  “From the child,” the sailor explains and points “up at the ship” where Yohan sees “a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky.”  A boy runs “after her, waving.”  Yohan hears the “delicacy and assuredness” of the girl’s voice, “the way it” rises “like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.”  Her kindness, her laughter, and even the sight of children at play are a balm for Yohan.

When Yohan immigrates to Brazil, he is only 25; his age belies both the horrors and hardships of war he has witnessed.  Seeking to escape his shattered past, Yohan has defected from North Korea.  Yoon eloquently and tenderly intersperses flashbacks into the narrative, memories that take Yohan and readers back to Yohan’s homeland.  Here, Yoon delivers the same vivid and moving descriptions of Yohan’s past as he first illustrated his protagonist’s arrival in Brazil.  For example, American soldiers find Yohan and his friend and fellow soldier Peng, who had been on patrol, among bombed-out wreckage.   “Among the men he and Peng had lived with, walked with, fought and slept beside, they were the only survivors of the bombing.”  This reality is sobering, especially once Yoon reveals that the Americans discovered them only because Yohan’s nose stuck up out of the snow, like a “carrot.”  The title is taken from another, equally poignant, scene in Yohan’s past when he and Peng see a Korean family scavenging in the snow.  Peng remarks that they look like “snow hunters…the way they moved across the snow like acrobats, their bright forms growing smaller in the night….”  Yohan may call a new country home, but the Korean War remains a part of his identity, and he is haunted by the conflict.

tumblr_mg8ng0C9zU1s2baglo1_r1_1280 (1)    Slowly, Yohan becomes part of his adopted country.  New friends alleviate the pain as they each mark Yohan’s life in his or her own way: the Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, for whom Yohan serves as apprentice; Peixe, the groundskeeper at a local church who suffered from polio as a child and walks with a cane; and the “beggar children” Bia and Santi who flit in and out of Yohan’s life.  These may be minor characters, but they happen to play significant roles in Yohan’s life.

Snow Hunters explores war, memory, identity, home, loss, trauma, forgiveness, and love—universal themes that appeal to all of us regardless of the nation in which we live.  With prose that begs to be savored, Snow Hunters proves Yoon is one of the most talented writers of his generation, and I cannot wait to see what his imagination yields next. Yoon’s passages often read like poetry.  I rarely read a sentence much less a paragraph or two over and over again, but I relished Yoon’s elegiac and commanding language.   His sentimentality makes Snow Hunters both unforgettable and stirring, which is a powerful combination.  Yohan is a simple man, but he is one of the most highly-developed characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

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The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert

Book Review: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (West Hills Press; 324 pages; $15.95).

cairo codexWhen an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

In The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.

Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.  Almost a decade ago, novels like these were abundant.  Biblical thrillers were once all the rage most likely due to the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Within the past few years, however, they have largely disappeared from shelves.  Why, I have no clue.  Perhaps the public grew tired of them, and their popularity waned.  For me, at least, Lambert’s story was welcome.  I always enjoyed reading these historical mysteries.

It always helps to have a strong protagonist, especially if it’s an independent and clever woman.  Lambert’s main character, Justinelinda lambert Jenner, can be both tough and tender.  She has her flaws just like we all do, leading us to cheer her on her successes and lament her failures.

Lambert also introduces a minor character of great interest, Omar Mostafa, as Director of the Supreme Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities.  Mostafa will surely remind readers of Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The codex that Justine discovers could shake the foundations of all the world’s religions.  I know what you’re thinking–so many thrillers that have anything to do with Christianity make similar claims and fall short.  Not The Cairo Codex. Interesting and exciting, Lambert’s novel delivers.

The Cairo Codex is the first novel in The Justine Trilogy, and I eagerly await the sequel.  

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Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn

(Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $27.50).

manson Prior to the publication of Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi’s national bestseller Helter Skelter was the definitive volume on Manson, his followers, and the series of murders his minions committed (the most famous of which was actress Sharon Tate) in August 1969.  Guinn has written a fascinating and essential biography of the cult leader and notorious killer.  To understand Manson and his era, Guinn’s take on the 78-year-old infamous murderer is not only important but necessary.

Charles Manson was pure evil personified.  Guinn writes, “There was nothing mystical or heroic about Charlie—he was an opportunistic sociopath.”  Guinn begins by effectively charting Manson’s history of incarceration. Both Manson’s mother and his uncle were imprisoned, and their tendency to commit crimes seems to have been passed down to Charlie. Interestingly, Manson spent more time in jail than he did out of it.

It was in prison where Charlie first read Dale Carnegie’s self-help book How To Win Friends and Influence People.  This was the one instance in which Manson himself was a convert.  Guinn shines as he takes Manson to San Francisco in the late 1960s, where he used Carnegie’s methods on young girls who were down on their luck and desperately searching for something.  Or someone.

Manson convinced the young women that they were all looking for him; he knew just how to manipulate them.  Using sex and drugs, Manson eliminated their super egos and eradicated all their barriers.  This insured they would do anything he asked of them.  Although he had trouble reading, Guinn suggests that Manson was especially savvy and intelligent, especially when it came to influencing people.

Since Los Angeles was the center of everything in the 1960s, particularly music, Manson and his cohorts settled there.  It was not long before they were hanging out with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and even Neil Young.  In fact, Gregg Jakobson, talent scout, session arranger, and good friend of Wilson’s, first used the term “the Family” to describe Manson and his followers.  The name stuck.

Manson hoped to get a recording contract but producers, like Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, passed.  However, Manson and his devotees still managed to spend around $100,00 of Wilson’s money and also obtained funds from Didi Lansbury, daughter of actress Angela Lansbury.  Eerily, Manson sent his people off on “creepy crawls,” where they would break into a house at night and, while the owners slept, rearrange their belongings.  Manson ordered his disciples not to steal anything, and they obeyed him.  Only when the unsuspecting home owners awoke would they realize their homes had been violated.  On one such creepy crawl, Manson’s acolytes broke into the home of John and Michelle Phillips of the musical group The Mamas and the Papas.

Guinn convincingly places Manson within his historical era.  The author writes, “The unsettling 1960s didn’t create Charlie, but they made it possible for him to bloom in full, malignant flower.”   The atmosphere of the late 60s was perfect for someone like Charlie, and he took full advantage of the tumult, even instilling fears of a race war, “Helter Skelter,” into his followers.

When Manson’s hopes for a career in music were dashed, he feared he would become lessened in the eyes of his supporters.  For a cult leader, this was unthinkable.  He had to act.  He had to somehow bind them to him forevermore.  He had to make them kill for him, Guinn maintains.  And they, good little soldiers that they were, did exactly that.

A significant portion of Manson is devoted to August of 1969 and the gruesome Tate and LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial in which Bugliosi served as chief prosecutor.  I have read Helter Skelter eight to ten times, yet so much of what Guinn wrote was new to me.  He interviewed many of those involved, some of whom had never spoken to any other writer before.  Guinn’s never-before-revealed information kept a decades-old crime intriguing, fresh, and compelling.

Manson belongs right next to Helter Skelter.  The two books of true crime complement each other nicely and should be read together for maximum effect.  They are two very different books.  The emphasis in Helter Skelter was on the trial and its preparation.  Bugliosi provided sketches of most of the people involved from the victims to the perpetrators to those knowledgeable.  While Manson was an important part of Helter Skelter, he was not the primary focus.  Guinn’s chilling and informative book, in contrast, is all about Manson.  You may think you know the story, but Guinn’s new material will have you glued to the page.

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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan (William Morrow; 432 pages; $25.99)

I still remember the sensation I felt when I read some of my favorite novels for the first time—Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  The sense that I was not reading just another ordinary book or just another mundane story overwhelmed me.  Instead, I was considering the writer’s very own soul.  Reading these narratives turned into a transcendent experience.  These emotions resurfaced as I read Stephen P. Kiernan’s dazzlingly provocative, compelling debut The Curiosity, and I welcomed them.  The Curiosity blends science fiction, fantasy, romance, and history, producing an intriguing and poignant tale guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on readers.

the curiosity   Kiernan’s first novel is adroitly plotted, skillfully paced, and interspersed with delicate foreshadowing.  Dr. Kate Philo, a scientist on an innovative mission led by Erastus Carthage, and her team look for small frozen life forms such as plankton and shrimp in the Arctic Ocean that they can “reanimate,” or bring back to life.  The experiments thus far have worked, but not on large beings and only for a very short time period.

Imagine their shock when they find a man frozen in the ice, a discovery that redefines both life and death.  On Carthage’s orders, the specimen is shipped back to his state-of-the-art research lab in Boston.  There, scientists reanimate the subject regardless of the implications, inciting media frenzy and leaving religious fundamentalists reeling. The “Lazarus Project” reignites the age-old debate between science and religion.

The Curiosity is told from varying, intricately-drawn viewpoints.  Kate, the sole female protagonist, energizes Kiernan’s narrative as she illustrates sympathy, empathy, and even love for the subject.  Kiernan contrasts Kate with Carthage, the vain and obsessive-compulsive antagonist, a character I loved to hate.  Curiously, Carthage’s account is told in the second person.  Kiernan’s use of “you” ensures no one will identify with this adversarial narrator, undoubtedly a deliberate and highly effective move.  Daniel Dixon, a reporter, functions as another of The Curiosity’s raconteurs as he stokes the media firestorm yet ultimately redeems himself.

The true star of Kiernan’s work, though, is the curiosity himself, the man raised from the dead: Jeremiah Rice.  As he slowly regains his memories, we learn that Jeremiah was a judge who fell overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.  Priceless are Kiernan’s passages in which Jeremiah tries to understand and navigate the twenty-first century.  Heartbreaking are the passages in which he discovers the fates of his loved ones.  As Jeremiah’s health falters, the story takes on an ominous dimension.  Reanimation of a human is just too new and mysterious a phenomenon.

Jeremiah’s future matters deeply to us.  To experience his death a second time would dishearten the reader, as Kiernan understands.

The author

The author

His and Kate’s fate are precarious but makes for captivating reading.  Whatever happens, I know you will root for Jeremiah just as I cheered him on.

Brilliant, imaginative, and thoroughly unconventional, The Curiosity is my new favorite novel.  As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands.  But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart.    Kiernan binds you to his narrators in such a way that you will never forget them; his characters stay with you always. That is why I hereby declare the hand of Kiernan divine.  When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it.  And that’s a good thing.

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Spotlight on The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

I am reading a spectacular debut by an exciting new literary talent.  It’s Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist, coming July 8 from W.WNorton & Company.

“Sleepers, awake!”

Resurecctionist n. (a). Hist. A body-snatcher; a resurrection man; (bgen. a person who resurrects something (lit. & fig.); (c) a believer in resurrection

About The Book:

resurrectionistA young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

Nemo Johnston was one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?

First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.

 

 

 

 

About The Author:

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the Matthew_GuinnUniversity of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master’s degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. In addition to the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina, he has taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Mississippi.

Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe.

 

 

Perspective-2-photo

“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.”

Historical Note: (from the book)

The events of The Resurrectionist are drawn from actual medical practice in the southern United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth.

Guinn is indebted to Abraham Flexner and Robert L. Blakely.

Abraham Flexner was a crusader for medical college reform in the early twentieth century; his report for the Carnegie resurrectionman02Foundation, entitled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, was published in 1910.  Flexner’s expose of the schools of his era–many of them rife with charlatanry, operated without regulation for pure profit–ushered in a new era of medical reform.  For sheer revelatory content, his report rivals any novelistic invention.

In 1989, the archaeologist Robert Blakely was called to the Medical College of Georgia when human remains were discovered in the earthen cellar of the campus’s oldest building during renovations.  His work, aided by the cooperation of MCG authorities, culminated in the publication of Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997).  

Although Guinn changes names and locations, the character of Nemo Johnson is drawn from the enigmatic biography that Bones resurrectionman03in the Basement sketches of Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the MCG faculty prior to the Civil War.  Harris functioned as the school’s janitor, butler, and body snatcher–or resurrectionist, in the parlance of the day.  With the faculty’s silent endorsement and support, Harris routinely pillaged Augusta’s African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, until his retirement in 1905.  Harris died in 1911, having never divulged his activities and without facing official censure for carrying out his nocturnal duties.  To date, the location of Grandison Harris’s remains in Cedar Grove is unknown.

Bookmagnet Says:

Prepare to be fascinated!

Here are some great websites to learn more:

Grandison Harris

My Georgia History

The legend

Purchase A Signed Copy From Lemuria Books

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