***** Five out of Five Stars.
Review by Mark Palm
If you have read my reviews before you should know by now that the categorization of books drives me crazy. I know that it is a necessity for bookstores and libraries, and it makes it much easier to find what you want when looking for something to read. On the other hand it creates “ghettos”, where works placed in a certain category can never reach an audience any wider than the one the marketing department decided was the best fit. Now and again a book comes along that straddles categories, like the Colossus of Rhodes. By Gaslight by Steven Price is just such a work. An audacious comparison, you might think, but how else can I describe a 700-plus page historic thriller that spans fifty years and three continents and is written in spare poetic prose that completely eschews quotation marks for all of the dialogue?
Basically By Gaslight is the story of two men; William Pinkerton, son of Allan, who founded the world-famous Pinkerton’s Agency, for some time the largest private security and detective agency that once had more employees and operatives that the standing U.S. Army, and Adam Foole, who seemingly has no past, and is living a life of secretive thievery for two equally mysterious comrades, Japheth and Molly. Pinkerton is in London, investigating the presumed death of Mary Reckitt, who was the partner of Edward Shade, the infamous thief that William’s father had been pursuing for decades. Foole is also obsessively searching for Mary, and the paths of the two,as well as their pasts collide. From there the story jumps forward and backward decades as Mr. Price deftly teases out the winding plot, that however complex it may get never manages to lose its tension. Bear in mind that this is no fast and loose thriller, but a massive book about spies , (the Pinkerton agency was responsible for almost all of the espionage work done for the Union during the Civil War), and secrets. Mr. Price delves into the pasts of both men and the events that made them and haunt them as the story unspools, while also touching upon such subjects as the nature of the self, and identity, all the while never stinting on the suspense.
As I mentioned earlier the prose is poetic, but in a sharp spare way that beautifully evokes place and time, from the slums and mansions of Victorian London to the battlefields of the American Civil War. The descriptions are deft and made me want to linger over them, even as the mesmerizing story pulled me along.
. The author completely jettisons quotation marks, a risky move that I have read some find an annoyance, but for me, the gamble pays off in spades. The lack of quotation marks forced me to read more slowly, and also made me more aware of the the dialogue and the prose, and never once seemed to me like an affectation.
Both Pinkerton and Foole are complex and realized characters, and they dominate the story, and all of the side characters ring true as well. Of particular interest was Mary Reckitt, the pivot upon whom so much of the story turns. In a story full of haunting characters, and the memories they carry, Mary stands out. As we learn more and more about the two men Mary remains a mystery, seen only from without and physically absent for much of the story. When she is present she is an elemental force.
For all of it’s size and depth when I got to the finish of By Gaslight I wished that there was more to go. If you want to know how much I thought of this book, I think that that says a lot.
****Four out of Five Stars
Review by Mark Palm.
As I grow old, ( I am not going to bullshit you by saying older), I wonder if I am starting to lose my edge. It’s inevitable, right? First you’re reading Milan Kundera in a noisy bar , sipping whiskey with an pack of unfiltered Camels on the table while you argue with your friends about who is Postmodernist and who is Post-Postmodernist, then someone pulls the rug out and it’s a couple of decades later and it’s all tea and naps and Agatha Christie.
Well, maybe it’s not that bad. But when I heard about Nicotine, by Zell Fink, I felt like I was being issued a challenge. The buzz was that it was weird. Well, it is weird, but not Finnegan’s Wake or The Dictionary of the Khazars weird. It has some unusual situations, and some odd characters, but it’s quite accessible, and most importantly, it’s also very good.
To peel away the complications, and to let you discover Ms. Zink’s gift for invention for yourself, I’ll break down the plot.
Penny is a young college graduate who is coming to terms with the death of her father, whom she nursed for months thru his long sickness. Her very unusual family is struggling to divide up her father’s possessions, and Penny, recently evicted from her NYC apartment, decides to look after her father’s run-down childhood home in New Jersey. To her surprise she finds that the house is not empty, but is occupied by a varied group of friendly anarchist squatters, all of whom use tobacco. They have dubbed the house Nicotine. Penny quickly befriends this unusual group, and becomes a part of their larger community, a large ragtag group of protesters, activists and free spirits, all content , or seemingly content, to live off of the grid and go their own way outside of the usual system. As Penny becomes more involved with this fringe society she finds herself entangled in a myriad of relationships, especially Rob, an asexual man with whom she fall in love.
There is fair amount of plot in the book, particularly dealing with Penny’s psychopathic brother Matt’s attempts to take over the house and use it to make money, but the crux of Nicotine is in the interaction between the characters, and it is in this that Ms. Zink really shines. Often reviewers praise authors for creating characters that are likable or memorable, but Nicotine is stocked with characters that step right off of the page. Penny, Rob, Matt, Sorry, Amalia, and Jazz all come to life, in such a way that I laughed with them one minute, (except for Matt), and wanted to grab them by the shirt and shake the snot out of them the next. For me the most intriguing was Jazz, a true free spirit, sensuous one moment and destructive the next, she was a force of nature that almost overtook the book.
Nicotine is Penny’s book, however. The power of her story as she makes her way through the sorrow of her father’s death to a eventually find her place in the world is all the stronger for me because it develops within and around all of the complications a swirl in her life. The nonlinear flow made it resonate more for me.
I also enjoyed Ms. Zink’s prose. It was quirky, offhand, and yet often oddly precise. I found that I like it most when it addressed a subject indirectly. Which is how I found my way into this book, and how I ended up liking it so much. Don’t over-analyse it. Just get in there, and if you are like me, will find it a bit like home.