Book Review: The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

mooreOne billion dollars. That’s the value of electric light in 1888. Or, that’s the staggering sum for which Thomas Edison is suing George Westinghouse, his rival in the electricity gambit, for sole control of who lights up America. For his defense, Westinghouse hires a fresh-out-of-college lawyer named Paul Cravath. Together, they plot against the man beloved by Americans as the Wizard of West Orange and backed by the wealthiest man in the country, J. P. Morgan. Paul’s task seems insurmountable.

Enter two unlikely allies: Nikola Tesla and Agnes Huntington. Tesla becomes a naïve pawn in the battle between Westinghouse and Edison, and Paul is blind to their manipulations. Agnes Huntington, a society belle and renowned singer, initially reaches out to Paul to defend her in a small contract dispute, but ends up befriending Tesla—and defending him against the two capitalists—and a romance begins between her and Paul.

The basic facts in this novel are true: There was a war for currents with Paul Cravath at the center of it all. The main characters are real—including the relationship between Paul and Agnes—and Graham Moore does justice in rendering them all as honestly as possible, but there are a number of liberties taken in the general timeline which Moore admits in the notes. For me, these liberties were somewhat off-putting. By condensing the history, the book feels more like a screenplay than a novel. Moore’s writing is sharp and as energized as his topic, but the chapters read like quick vignettes, making it hard to connect with the characters. One thing can be said: Despite the screenplay nature, this is a riveting book that will hold your attention and will illuminate many on the birth of the electric light in America. Part legal thriller, part romance, injected with a history lesson. Worth the read.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: Eva Sleep by Francesca Melandri (Katherine Gregor, trans.)

melandriItaly, 1963: Gerda comes from a poor family in the Alto Adige/South Tyrol region of Italy. At 16, she is sent off to work in a tourist hotel by her father; the life ahead of her bleak, she’d become one of the many female cooks nicknamed matratzen (mattresses). But she will soon become a matratze who is actually respected by the men in the hotel. All around Gerda is a region in turmoil; Alto Adige is home to German-speaking citizens who’d prefer to be part of Austria and Italian soldiers ordered to wrest the people into Italian culture. Despite having avoided harm at the hotel, the civil unrest in the region will not avoid her family.

Italy, present day: Eva receives a phone call. It is from the one man that she might have called her father. He is on his deathbed and would like to see her one last time. Vito came from Southern Italy; one of the thousands of soldiers ordered to stop the Tyrol terrorists. Despite their differences, Vito falls in love with Gerda even if she has an illegitimate child. So, Eva packs a day bag and begins a long train journey south for one last moment with her “father.”

Eva Sleeps is two stories: Gerda’s and Eva’s. One is a sorrowful tale of overcoming adversity, and the other is a story of growth; both mimic the unrest in Alto Adige which is woven through their lives. Gerda’s story is a fascinating look at the political and cultural transformations within Alto Adige. Melandri captures the tension, loss, and patriotism of this region splendidly. Unfortunately, Eva’s story is more a PBS travel special on the Italian countryside. Page after page of scenery: mountains, coasts, vineyards and train stations. All well-written, but I found that I couldn’t wait to get back into Alto Adige.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: 300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson

lawrensonIn August 2014, Joanna Millard flees Brussels, leaving behind a stagnant journalist career and a failing relationship, and finds herself on the sun-drenched coast of Faro, Portugal. She enrolls in a Portuguese language class, where she meets Nathan Emberlin, a young, brash man with a secret. When Nathan enlists Jo’s journalistic and investigative skills in helping him track down information on the kidnappings of children—and his own adoption—along the Portuguese coast she quickly learns that idyllic Faro has a dark, sinister past.

During their investigation they meet Ian Rylands, an expat who suggests to Joanna that she reads a book called The Alliance. Set in Portugal during World War II, The Alliance details an American couple’s struggles in Portugal as they weave through Machiavellian webs of deceit, mistrust and political intrigue between the Nazis and the Allies. Eventually, Joanna learns that the book is not fiction and that it holds the clue to solving Nathan’s kidnapping quest.

300 Days of Sun is a book within a book. For Joanna’s sections, Lawrenson does an amazing job setting the scenes of Portugal. The vibrancy of sound, smells, and color springs from the pages. The sections with The Alliance will appeal to fans of history by delving into the uncertain nature of neutral Portugal awash with Nazi and British and American spies. But these two pieces, though woven together to bring resolution to the plot, may get in the way of each other for many readers. I struggled to like Joanna. Her character felt a bit flat, and Nathan was too much a caricature at times. The ending is somewhat predictable, and Joanna’s final decisions may leave the reader with a feeling of “oh.” A good rainy day read when you want to feel the warmth of Portugal across your face.

Originally appeared: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

Book Review: An Untimely Frost–Lilly Long Mysteries by Penny Richards

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Orphaned at eleven and raised in the theater, Lilly Long has not known anything but make-believe and role playing. After she is jilted by her husband—who steals both her innocence and her savings—Lilly decides she’s going to defend the many other helpless women in the world. To do this, she sets out to become a Pinkerton. Headstrong and determined, Lilly does whatever it takes to win over Allan Pinkerton and his two sons. She is conditionally brought on, and her first case is, on the surface, a simple one: locate a missing family—a local pastor, his wife, and their children.

When Lilly arrives in 1880s Vandalia, Illinois, she assumes that she’ll be able to wrap up her case quickly and return home triumphant. What she finds is a town that clamps down in an antagonistic silence at the mere mention of the Pastor or his family. Lilly is forced to draw on all her theater experience to wiggle her way into the fabric of a town whose wounds are close to the surface, and whose scars are still too tender to be dealt with. Beyond Vandalia’s resistance, Lilly begins to have concerns with a boxer who seems to be shadowing her every move. As the stakes, and threats on her life, rise, she begins to wonder if the two are connected.

Penny Richards has written a fun, feisty protagonist in Lilly Long. The prose is crisp and the tempo paces nicely to a finish that sees Lilly needing every bit of her cunning. The motives for the family’s disappearance and subsequent crimes I felt were a bit odd, but those did not impact the overall book. A nice read beside the pool.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016

Book Review: These Honored Dead by Johnathan Putnam

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A young store owner and an up-and-coming lawyer start a lifelong relationship in Jonathan Putnam’s These Honored Dead. Joshua Speed runs a general store in Springfield, Illinois. When he’s asked if he has room for a new man in town to bunk with him, Speed reluctantly agrees to share his bed—not an unusual circumstance in a town with too few rooms for bachelors to bunk down—with the young lawyer. But when Speed sees the tall, lanky Abraham Lincoln for the first time, he begins to question his generosity. However, the two men not only start a friendship, but they also embark on a tangled path of murder, deceit and illicit affairs. When Rebecca Harriman’s niece is murdered in her barn, Speed takes it upon himself to prove her innocence. His motives seem unusual to Lincoln, but he doesn’t know that Speed and Harriman had a secret affair. When two more murders occur, it is up to Lincoln to defend the man accused of the crime. Through Speed’s investigations (with help from his sister), and Lincoln’s crafty legal ruse, secrets come to light that no one could have suspected.

Putnam takes the real-life friendship of Lincoln and Speed and spins a wonderful fictional history of their first years together. As to the mystery part, it is not too difficult to piece together the murderer early on, but the story is engaging enough to pull you through to the end when you are given the whys. A well-researched book that will appeal to fans of historical fiction, and a book that should be on a Lincoln buff’s reading list.

Review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review August 2016