They say not to judge a book by its cover. In general, this is probably good advice. But when the author of the book is also a gifted painter who creates his own covers, I believe it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. For in this case, the cover is not just some bit of packaging a publisher slapped on the text; it is the product of the same imagination that created the world of the story.

Look at this cover! What does it evoke to you? A fantastic rock formation, perhaps? I encourage you to think for a moment about this before you read on.

It is a “Martian castle,” which is a term for the abandoned grain elevators of a terraformed Mars in the distant future Litka imagines. Most interesting to me is Litka’s description, where he says he envisions his futuristic Mars as being like Nebraska. I love this idea. 

Don’t you feel a little as if you’re gazing at it across some open plain, where the chilly breeze whips against you and the weak light of the sun–paler than on our own planet–throws blue shadows down across the barren desolation? You can almost hear the echoing horn of the train at the elevator’s base as it rolls along.

At least, I can. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up in a rural midwestern town where the biggest landmark was a grain elevator with a railway beside it. The Mars of this book is a Mars that I can easily relate to.

On to the text itself: the book’s protagonist, Gy Mons, has awakened after some 700 years of stasis in a Martian facility. While he and his wife, Keiree Tulla, had slumbered in their pods, a plague devastated the solar system, more or less wiping out colonies on Earth and the Jovian moons.

Gy soon learns that Keiree’s pod was stored elsewhere, and so she was not awakened along with his group. So he–and his genetically modified silka cat, Molly–set off to find her, at every step discovering how Mars has changed while he was in stasis.

There’s a fascinating temporal parallax that occurs for Gy as he searches his and Keiree’s old neighborhoods on Mars. For him, it feels as though it’s only been a few weeks since he’s been in these places, though in fact centuries have elapsed. If you’ve ever come back to your old hometown after being away for years, imagine that, only multiplied by 700.

This book is, obviously from the setting, sci-fi. And yet, I’d say it’s really what is often called “literary fiction.” As I read it, I kept thinking of Mark Paxson’s novella The Irrepairable Past, which is not at all sci-fi, but which also deals with someone reflecting on bittersweet memories. Both books are about something deep in the human psyche, and Keiree feels every bit as emotionally relevant and powerful as if it were set on present-day Earth.

This is why I dislike the distinction between literary and genre fiction. We write books to make people feel a certain way. Whether they are set in the distant past, the present-day, or an imagined future, is secondary to their true purpose of evoking a feeling in the reader. And Keiree does evoke many feelings. So what if these characters are living on Mars, many centuries from now? They are still people, and Litka treats them as such.

Well, except of course Molly, who is a cat. A genetically-modified one, but in ways that if anything only accentuate her fundamental “cat-ness.” Anyone who ever owned a cat will know instantly what I mean.

Keiree is a wonderful novella, and I recommend it highly. Everyone, whether they like sci-fi or not, should go visit Litka’s gorgeous vision of Mars.

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.

“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”

Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.

As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.

This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.

Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.

The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.

Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.

Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual. 

The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.

Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.

There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.

This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.

Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.

And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.

I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.

I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.

Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.

And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.

The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.

I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.

There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.

The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.

Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.

My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.

Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.

This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book. 

One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.

And now, a word about zombies. 

I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed. 

Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.

Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.

It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

I picked this book up because it is set during the Boer War. How many books do you hear about set during the Boer War? I mean, of course, this isn’t the only one, but compared to the seemingly-endless army of books set during, say, World War II, it’s a relatively exclusive club. Come to that, how many people today even know what the Boer War was? It’s not something that gets a lot of attention. Maybe people find it, as one of my history teachers never tired of saying, “Boer-ing”?

Well, it was anything but! People lived and died and enjoyed triumphs and tragedies even before 1939, you know. Forgiven is concerned with telling the story of a young man’s experiences of all these. Richard Wilson is his name, a New Zealander who falls in love with the lovely Rachel Purdue. Rachel is a lovely girl who has had her reputation unfairly tarnished by gossip, which has left her without suitors in her hometown. She and Richard soon become engaged, but are forbidden by her family to marry immediately.

While waiting, Richard gets the not-so-bright idea to join up in the British Empire’s fight against the Boers in South Africa. Rachel, who is a bit sensitive and fearful of betrayal, is furious with him, as well she should be, for making this huge decision without consulting her. But, Richard has given his word, and has no choice but to keep it. And so he ships off to the Cape Colony.

In addition to fighting the Boers, he encounters a ruthless Prussian spy and a haughty English aristocrat, Lady Sarah. Initially, he and she despise one another–he sees her as a stuck-up noblewoman, she sees him as an uncouth commoner–but over the course of their time together, they come to have a mutual respect. I really enjoyed the way their relationship evolves.

That said, one aspect of it that did surprise me was the anachronistic language. I just can’t believe that a man of the 19th century, even one as admittedly rough-around-the-edges as Richard is, would refer to a woman the way he does. Oh, he might not like her, to be sure; he might very well resent being ordered about by such a pampered princess; but he wouldn’t express it the way modern folks do. At least, everything I’ve ever read of 19th century literature indicates to me he wouldn’t.

Now, using modern dialogue in historical fiction is a common stylistic choice, and it can work. But at times, the language did seem to be period-correct. And then something modern-sounding would pop-up. It was a bit jarring.

That said, much of the history feels authentic. The author is an expert on the firearms of the era, and gives the lengthy descriptions of the weaponry, which was quite interesting. Numerous historical figures of the period, including Walter Kitchener, Koos de la Rey, and a young Winston Churchill are all referenced throughout the tale.

Overall, it’s a very well-paced story of adventure and romance, and while the author keeps the pace moving briskly, he stops to indulge every now and again in some very evocative imagery. What I like best of all was how well fleshed-out even minor characters are; it made the whole thing feel very immediate and real.

A couple other minor things that didn’t quite work for me: there’s a sub-plot involving Rachel’s ne’er-do-well brother, which not only seemed unnecessary, but was especially jarring because it was told in the third person, when the majority of the book is in the first-person, from Richard’s perspective.

Also, there was at least one thing that seemed to be a stone-cold anachronism: at one point, there is a reference to a Zane Grey novel. As near as I can tell, the earliest of Zane Grey’s work was published in 1903, and the action in Forgiven ends in 1900. It’s hardly a central plot point, but it I noticed it all the same. Given how accurate the novel is in other respects, this was very strange, and made me wonder if I was missing something. If there are any experts on the period–or Zane Grey, for that matter–who can explain what’s going on here, I’d be very grateful.

Despite these minor reservations, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good adventure/romance, and wants something in an uncommon setting. Give it a try.

This book begins with a clever hook: the protagonist, Cassie Black, is shocked when the corpses at the funeral home where she works start coming back to life. She quickly learns the reason for this sudden re-animation is that they have “unfinished business.” At first, she’s able to help put them to rest, but when the eponymous Mr. Tenpenny returns to life, putting him at peace proves to be a daunting task that sucks Cassie into a whole parallel world of magic and mystery.

The book is very much in the tradition of fantasy novels like Alice in WonderlandHarry Potter, etc. (There are a few references to the latter throughout.) It’s the classic setup of a seemingly ordinary person who finds themselves in another society where they are of immense importance. From there it’s Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Quest, through and through, but Cassie narrates her adventures with a smart-aleck, macabre sense of humor. The book is suffused with dark humor, of the sort at which Painter excels. 

Cassie can be a little difficult; I won’t lie. There are times when her anti-social personality and paranoia make her tough to relate to. Although, as is explained in her backstory, she’s had a hard life, shuffled among various foster families that treated her quite badly, so it makes sense she would be this way. And eventually, her instincts do point her in the right direction. (Sort of.)

I actually enjoyed the “real” world of everyday Portland most of all; it felt very vivid and interesting. I especially liked the officious government inspector who is investigating the funeral home where Cassie works, suspecting, (quite correctly) that something is amiss.

That reminds me: this is book one in a series, and it ends on a cliffhanger. So, there are a lot of threads that remain to be tied up in future volumes, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes. It’s a fun read for anyone who enjoys fast-paced, somewhat snarky, somewhat twisted fantasy adventures.

[This review is based on an ARC. The Undead Mr. Tenpenny releases today, February 23, 2021.]

Okay, I cheated a little on my plan to broaden my reading horizons this month. This is a science fiction book, which is very much my standard fare. But it’s also a romance; trust me! And it’s something of a milestone because it’s the first book I’ve ever bought because of an ad. For years I’ve seen a link to it on the Amazon page for one of my books. So when I needed to find another romance book, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m glad I did.

The setting is Union Station, a sort of hub space station where races from all across the universe meet. (I kept picturing the Citadel presidium from the Mass Effect series.) The station is run by super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings known as the Stryx, who monitor everything and generally keep order.

The Stryx also run a dating service, which purports to be able to find the perfect match for someone due to the telepathic abilities of the intelligence. Kelly Frank, the EarthCent ambassador, who receives a gift subscription to the Stryx’s matchmaking service.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she hopes–Kelly ends up having a series of bad dates, some of which lead to bizarre adventures, but none of which result in her finding a good partner.

Much the same story holds for Joe McAllister, a former mercenary spacer turned junk dealer who has also decided to take advantage of the dating service. He too has quite a range of experiences–but he just can’t seem to find that special someone.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s still an enjoyable ride, thanks largely to Foner’s first-rate world-building. Kelly and Joe’s bad dates show us glimpses of the wider universe–and what a rich universe it is, populated by all kinds of interesting characters. There’s a royal house in need of a champion, a criminal kidnapping ring, and robot trying to pass itself off as human. Then there are the subplots involving cheating at competitive gaming, a couple of flower girls profiting off of the dating scene, and a bazaar teeming with counterfeit goods.

All of it feels so organic and interesting–not to mention really funny. It’s a lighthearted book, and each vignette ends on an amusing note. There’s plenty of conflict, but of the purely PG-rated variety. There’s nothing too dark here; it’s a romp.

Sci-fi fans should absolutely check this book out. Even if you’re not into romance, don’t worry–there’s a lot more going on here. I have only one complaint about this book, which is that the last chapter felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to see it come to a more leisurely conclusion. But hey, if your biggest complaint is that the ride ended too soon, you know it’s good.

Admittedly, I’m late to the party on this one. This book has over a thousand reviews, so it’s fairly well known, as such an enjoyable book deserves to be. Perhaps it’s proving me wrong about ads after all.

What I like best about Geoffrey Cooper’s thrillers are how they provide a window into the politics of research institutions. I’ve noted this about his earlier Brad and Karen novels, Nondisclosure and Forever, and if you enjoyed those novels as much as I did, you’ll be glad to know that Bad Medicine is more of the same.

Brad is requested–more like ordered–by the university president to chair a tenure committee at a medical research Institute in Maine. There are two candidates up for tenure: one is Mark Heller, a superstar researcher who appears to have made huge strides in cancer research, the other is Carolyn Gelman, whose work, while strong, lags behind her colleague and is unpopular with the faculty to boot.

The politics of tenure committees are bad enough, but soon, Brad finds evidence that something far more serious is going on: someone is sabotaging Gelman’s research. Beginning with the destruction of test drugs and escalating to far more serious crimes, Brad and Karen once again are drawn into a criminal conspiracy.

As usual, the pace is fast and the twists are numerous, but there are still moments for the characters to stop and catch their breath, and to sample some delicious New England cuisine, the descriptions of which are highly enjoyable.

The core of the book is the relationship between Brad and Karen, which ends up being tested in a surprising way. I liked the way this was handled, too–it makes sense that what happens would put some stress on them, but it doesn’t create needless drama or tension. Sometimes authors go too far in creating fissures in a relationship, in a way that feels forced. But that didn’t happen here.

If you enjoyed the other Brad and Karen books, you’re going to like this one. Besides being a good thriller, it’s another fascinating glimpse behind the curtain at the highest levels of medical research.  As soon as I finished it, I found myself hoping to read another one soon.

[Note: this review is based on an ARC. Bad Medicine releases today, February 17, 2021.]

I love poetry–especially rhyming, metrical poetry. I’ve learned over time to appreciate blank verse and the like, but in my heart, I’m always going to be a sucker for a good old rhyming couplet. To illustrate: while most people would probably say T.S. Eliot’s greatest work is The Waste Land, give me Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats any day.

That’s why it was such a delight to read this amusing collection of poems, about the mis-adventures of the author’s dog, Ani. All the poems are light, bubbly and amusing, and sure to make any dog lover smile as they read Ani’s antics with tennis balls, vacuum cleaners and–the pup’s ultimate nemesis–baths.

Ani’s human, Sue Vincent, has a great knack for sparkling, crisp verse and a delightful wit. In a few poems based off of Shakespeare’s works, she does a fine job in the style of the Bard. And most of all, she has a wonderfully endearing love for her dog, and one that Ani clearly reciprocates as only canines can.

Doggerel is a charming book that anyone who loves poetry and/or dogs is sure to enjoy. It’s also illustrated with pictures of the four-legged protagonist, who looks like every bit the lovable scamp portrayed in the poems.

(P.S. I am very grateful to my friend A.C. Flory for bringing this author’s work to my attention.)

This is a Regency romance. Regency romance is a super-popular genre, which is why I made it my business to find a lesser-known indie Regency romance with only a few reviews. Because that’s how we do things here at Ruined Chapel.

To be clear, this book is more in the Regency Historical sub-category, in that the characters use many modern expressions and tend to behave more in accordance with present-day attitudes, without much care for the mores of the actual Regency period.

In other words, this book has sex scenes. Don’t go in expecting Jane Austen. It’s raunchy and fast-paced. Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a Regency sex comedy. 

And that’s not all. Penelope, the impulsive, stubborn heroine, moonlights as a highwayman when she’s not flirting with Lord Westfield, Duke of Burwick. There’s a subplot with smugglers and kidnappers that culminates in a violent showdown.

The book is fast-paced. Sometimes, it was so fast-paced I found It difficult to keep track of all the characters were and their motivations. It’s probably a good idea to keep notes on characters as they are introduced. Also, it has a trope that’s common in romance novels: two characters who are obviously going to end up together refusing to just admit they’re in love for no particular reason. This drives me nuts; but it’s so frequently used I guess romance readers don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to marry somebody whose attitude towards me seemed to vary by the hour, but hey; that’s just me. 

Despite this criticism, the book is enjoyable. I think I’m right in saying the author doesn’t mean for it to be taken too seriously; hence the “funny” in the subtitle. There are some over-the-top scenes of bawdy, farcical humor that are quite enjoyable. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s still an entertaining tale with a bit of naughtiness to it.

On a technical note: there are a few typos throughout the book. It didn’t really bother me that much, but some readers are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others.

And it has to be said: I’m not normally one to read Regency romances. I’m nowhere near the target market for this book. And even I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.  Regency romance fans who like their tales to err on the silly side are sure to find it a treat.

To understand the future, we must understand the past. I’ve used this strange, unwieldy phrase “techno-decadentism” in reference to an artistic movement; one that is, I will argue, an heir to the tradition of “just plain old” decadentism. But what was the original decadentism? Where did it come from? And can we learn anything from it?

Come with me, once again, to the 1890s. I talked in the previous post about fin de siècle. But now we have to experience it.

It’s 1897 and there’s a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard on at the Savoy. Check out that poster!

A black figure against a yellow background–how striking. Then again, we’ve seen this before–in 1896, The Grand Duke was playing at the Savoy, with a very similar poster–indeed, by the same artist:

Of course, Grand Duke depicts a broken-down critter, not an imposing figure. And yet, both, in their own way, symbolize the same thing. Do I even have to tell you what they symbolize? Decadence means decay, and the final stage of decay is of course death. A lone figure, symbolizing death… it evokes Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Ah, now, that’s a bit of a cheat. I have no business dragging a poem from 1842 into a conversation about the 1890s. Or do I? After all, Poe’s influence on the decadent movement was great, and if he was born a little too early, and a lot too west, we can’t blame him for it. Artistic movements usually take a while to bloom; like a plant. “A flower, planted on Poe’s grave,” as I once heard someone describe it.

You might think these posters are similar simply because they are by the same artist, Dudley Hardy. But this is more than just a single artist’s distinctive touch. It’s part of something bigger–hence, we call it an aesthetic. See again the example of Théophile Steinlen’s 1896 poster for Le Chat Noir:

Or, maybe the single most famous piece of artwork to come out of this epoch: The Scream, by Edvard Munch (1893). Again, an ominous background surrounding a surreal and nightmarish figure: 

Everything about Fin de siècle is conveying a mood of pessimism, of decline and decay. In England, a venerable old monarch was growing grey. Victoria’s days were numbered, as her subjects must have known, but would not say. Maybe that’s why Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study of death and rebirth myths The Golden Bough (1890) made such a hit.

You ask: am I just cherry-picking here? Finding all the seemingly-related works from a certain period and leaving out ones that don’t fit? I’m sure there must have been good old-fashioned romantic art being produced in the 1890s. (Actually, fin de siecle art was centered in Europe–other parts of the world were in an altogether different phases of civilization at this point.)

Anyway, yes: I might indeed be cherry-picking facts. It’s easy to find themes that fit a narrative and discard those that don’t, since we know what happened next, and therefore are easily predisposed to see patterns that might not even exist.

To know if anything is really going on here in the 1890s, we have to try to look at the world through the eyes of its inhabitants. This is where my amateurish Gilbert and Sullivan studies come in handy: in their heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan made their names with comic operas known for their light humor, bubbly dialogue, and romance. They are optimistic and fun–even when they talk about darker subjects like execution.

And then we come to the 1890s, and things change. Their next-to-last work, Utopia, Limited doesn’t just mock the foibles of particular public figures, but is a broad satire on the British Empire itself. And their last, the aforementioned Grand Duke is cynical mockery of almost everything–love, death and the medium of theatrical entertainment itself. It’s funny (actually, in my opinion one of their funniest) but it doesn’t have heart like their most famous operas do.

As Max Keith Sutton put it in his article, The Significance of The Grand Duke:

The opera is a decadent work, as Professor Jones has suggested–perhaps a deliberate parody of literary trends near the time of Wilde’s Salome, when perverse attitudes (necrophilia, for one) and violence were being seriously depicted on the European stage. Certainly The Grand Duke is decadent in the literal sense of representing physical and mental, moral and political decay.

He explicitly makes the comparison with fertility myths:

The decrepit Rudolph has the role of the Old King whose death signifies the end of the year, the defeat of Winter in the ceremonial contest with Spring. “Broken-down critter” that he is, he makes a perfect monarch for a comic wasteland… Rudolph undergoes legal death in the mock duel–”the moment of ritual sacrifice”–and the plump, sausage-devouring comedian takes over as duke for a day and Lord of Misrule.

I can’t prove an entire shift in the zeitgeist based on the work of a curmudgeonly old librettist and his alienated and sickly composer. But, something is going on here, wouldn’t you say? Things that would have never been tolerated at the height of Victorian prudishness are now becoming mainstream. 

There is a sense of a cycle, a cycle that is coming to an end. The cynicism, boredom, and restless neuroticism that characterize a declining empire who knows its best days are behind it. 

I’ve always liked The Grand Duke. It was the least popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but its atmosphere is strangely compelling to me. But I never bothered to see it in its proper context until I began to study the 1890s for another reason: Robert W. Chambers’ collection of stories, The King in Yellow, and in particular the first story, The Repairer of Reputations.”

I’ve talked about it before. A lot. Hell, I’ve actually posted the story with my annotations on this blog. So a lot of this will be old hat to longtime readers. But we just can’t understand this strange world of fin de siècle without understanding The King in Yellow. Sorry if this is repetitious for some of you.

Despite my enthusiasm for it, I’ve never actually reviewed The King in Yellow, however, because something in it defies reviewing. The key part of the book is the fictional play described within it, also called The King in Yellow, which connects the first four stories. Chambers only quotes bits and pieces of the play, and, notably, only from Act I. Act II–the really juicy bit that drives people mad–is left a mystery to the reader. Personally, I’ve always imagined it as something to do with an all-consuming plague, like the aforementioned Masque of the Red Death. And I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say there is an echo of Poe’s story in these mysterious lines quoted from the play:

CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!

But that’s just me. The beauty of Chambers’ technique is that he knows that what the reader imagines will be scarier than anything he himself could create.

If The King in Yellow has a flaw, it’s that its tales are arranged in the wrong order, proceeding from most bizarre to most mundane. M.R. James would have known that the way to truly mess with the reader is to lull them at first, before springing the trap. But, probably some editor told Chambers that one of the ten rules of writing was to lead with the exciting bit, or some such conventional wisdom. Times change; but people who don’t appreciate art remain the same, and also remain in charge of deciding what shall be published.

Recall that, as I said above, it is hard to evaluate an era honestly, because we know what happened. It’s interesting to get a view of the people of the era, who don’t know where it’s all going. It’s even more interesting to read their predictions for where they think it will go.  Chambers provides us with just such a prediction, albeit wrapped in a curious package.

The Repairer of Reputations begins:

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President W———‘s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s ————-, had left no visible scars upon the republic…

Okay, so I’m playing censor here and cutting stuff out. Did your mind automatically fill in those blanks? The natural thing is to assume the first is filled with “Wilson” and the second with “invasion of France.” 

If you do that, you have a totally nondescript history of someone talking about actual 1920. Admittedly, it’s a decidedly vague description, but still, it works.

But of course, this story was written in 1895. And it’s President Winthrop and Germany seized the Samoan islands. Which actually happened a few years after Chambers wrote the book, although it was not the cause of the major war.

I am not a believer in prophecies or seers or other such superstitious hokum. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side…” etc. But seriously, this gives me pause. 

What’s even weirder is that, as the story develops, we learn that Hildred Castaigne, the narrator telling us all this, is, um, not exactly reliable. In fact, he’s so unreliable that it might not even be set in 1920 at all, and yet his doubly-imaginary 1920 seems plausible to us, as readers who, unlike Chambers, know what happened in real 1920.

Does this creep you out just a little? There’s more: the future that our narrator reports (envisions?) includes such things as government lethal chambers, where people who find existence unendurable may find relief. Was that prescient? I dunno, let’s check with the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922. 

So what the heck? Was Robert W. Chambers was some sort of prophet or time-traveler gifted with uncanny insight into the future? And if he was, we must ask: why did he use his powers only to write one cool story, and not for something more epic?

A more plausible explanation, and much more agreeable to my skeptical, materialist mind, is that there is such a thing a zeitgeist where all trends are pointing towards something happening.  For example, could you find some literary work from the early 2000s that involved a highly-contagious pandemic? Why yes, you could! But really, in retrospect, isn’t that one of those things that any intelligent person who was paying attention could have foreseen? 

And this is why fin de siècle literature is so interesting. If it was all just a coincidence that around 1890 everybody started to feel cynical, bored, and generally like the old order is about to go up in some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe, and it did, then it’s a mere historical curiosity. 

But if, on the other hand, there is some sort of predictive value in this–if perhaps people feeling this pervasive sense of decay had something to do with the ultimate fate of Europe, either because it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply because anyone attuned to the spirit of the age could see where it was going, then this is very interesting indeed.

And it would be especially interesting if we had some reason to believe that it was happening again… but that’s for another time. 😉

I have to start this review with some context: I started reading this book shortly after doing some beta reading for a friend of mine. The book I was beta reading was an extremely dark, harrowing story about terrorism.  While it’s a great story, it was nice to be able to turn from that world (not to mention real life news) into this book, which is a sweet, uplifting romance.

Not that there aren’t serious moments in Second Chance Romance. The female lead, Melanie Harper, has a major tragedy in her past. Trying to forget it, she’s immersed herself in her work as a divorce attorney in Washington D.C., but has come to the small town of Sweet Gum, Virginia to convince her Aunt Phoebe to abandon her little diner and move to D.C.

While there, Melanie has a car accident and is rescued by Jackson Daughtry, a single father raising his young daughter, Rebecca, after his wife left him.

After Melanie recovers from her accident, Phoebe suffers a stroke, rendering her unable to run her business, and forcing Melanie and Jackson to work together to keep the diner running. At first, the big-city lawyer and the small-town paramedic clash, but soon–it’s a romance, after all–they begin to develop feelings for each other.

Not that it’s smooth sailing even then. Jackson and Melanie still disagree over her plan to close the diner and move her aunt to D.C. And to make matters even more difficult, Jackson’s ex-wife shows up again.

I should mention that this is a Love Inspired book, which is an imprint that publishes Christian fiction. So there are a few references to characters praying and facing struggles with their faith throughout the book. It never comes across as strident or preachy, however; and largely seemed right for the characters.

All in all, it’s a very sweet story. There are no big surprises or shocking twists, and there shouldn’t be in a book like this. It’s a feel-good book. And while it’s not the sort of thing I often read, it’s quite enjoyable. There is a place in every art form for both the Rockwell-esque and the Goya-esque. Though my own tastes skew towards the latter, I can still respect the former. 

This is a perfect book for anyone who wants to enjoy a light and uplifting romance in a pleasant small-town atmosphere.