Essex Dogs is Disappointing Historical Fiction

I’ve enjoyed a number of Dan Jones’s popular histories like The Plantagenets and Magna Carta and have read a great deal about The Hundred Years’ War, so I was looking forward to his debut historical novel Essex Dogs.  It features a ragtag small company of soldiers and bowmen headed for Normandy in 1346 and ultimately the Battle of Crécy where the French lost to the English in a humiliating, historic defeat.  That battle changed the balance of power in Europe with France’s heavily-armored mounted knights beaten by the more mobile English troops and their archers.

It’s potentially superb material but the book feels cartoonish, partly because the dialogue is wildly anachronistic, stuffed with every version of the f-bomb you can imagine.  Historians agree that the word was not in popular use in the 14th century, but Jones’s characters sometimes sounding like they’re in Goodfellas. “Fuck you looking at?” is one example, and for emphasis, that knight says it twice. The French are, of course, called “fuckers” and “fucking” is the invariable English adjective of choice, with “Fuck off!” a frequent command.  How did a responsible editor let this dialogue pass muster? 

At one point some variation of “fuck” crops up four times in only six very short paragraphs, and that’s not the only place where that word choice becomes an oppressive drumbeat.  Sometimes, though, the profanity becomes simply ridiculous, as when an earl shouts “The faster you fucking go, the sooner you’re fucking back!”
But profanity overkill isn’t the only problem with the prose.  There’s the leader of the small band, Loveday Talbot, remembering his “mantra,” knowing who “has his back” and there are people discussing how they should “play” a situation as they hit the beach in Normandy.   This discordant dialogue had me on the alert for someone saying “Let’s do this thing.”  It didn’t happen, but there was this priceless piece of defiance going into battle: “Let’s show them who we are.”

It’s a shame that the writing isn’t better because Jones does a decent job of making you feel the heat and filth of the expedition of 15,000 men, along with the chaos  of their landing and the brutality of combat. But sometimes it feels as if he’s reveling in the gore and grime.  That gets tedious, and there’s way more phlegm, spit, shit and snot than the book needed.

One other aspect weighs the novel down: there’s a grotesque, drunken, slovenly, drug-addled, farting priest whose presence in the company is totally unnecessary.  He adds nothing to the story and it’s a relief when he’s dead, though that takes over 250 pages to happen.  It’s hard to care for him or any of the other characters in this book since they’re all one-dimensional and that even applies to Loveday himself.

Though Jews were expelled from England in 1290, Jones has a Jew as a former member of the company some fifty years later–and gives him an improbable name: Wiseman the Jew. Plenty of sources show that Biblical names like Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Isaac, Joseph and Abraham would have been much more authentic for an English Jew if he had somehow managed to be living in England at that time and serving in the army of Edward III.  Even the Latin Benedict (for Baruch) would have made more sense since Jews sometimes used Latin names derived from the Hebrew.  More puzzling than that, Edward III’s son, later the famous Black Prince, is portrayed as a whining, drug-addled, annoying teenage brat and there’s nothing remotely epic about the climactic Battle of Crécy that everything has been leading to.

The book is a very long slog compared to the richly-imagined and beautifully-written historical novels of  Bernard Cornwell set during the Hundred Years’ War.  Read any one of them, like The Archer’s Tale, for a truly immersive experience.  Cornwell doesn’t kick you out of his fiction with glaring anachronisms or gratuitous profanity, and his deep characterization, his sense of texture, and his grasp of human and period psychology are far superior to anything you’ll find in Essex Dogs.  Jones says in his acknowledgments that he was encouraged to write fiction and I wish he’d gotten better advice on how to work in a new genre.  ★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post, Jerusalem Report, Bibliobuffet, The Ft. Worth-Star Telegram and various public radio stations. 

Murder Most Foul

Before you even turn The Girls over to read the blurbs on the back or open to read the publisher’s description on the inside jacket, you know you’re in for a lovely, barbed treat. The cover illustration is by Edward Gorey and that means you can expect sly wit and unusual mayhem.

Susan and Janet have lived a harmonious and very busy life for almost a decade near a picturesque English village doing picturesque things to stock their odd little shop in town. They keep free-range chickens and bees, sew and cobble.  The store is filled with their fresh eggs; jams, preserves, and chutney; honey combs; clogs; home-made aprons and cloth belts; their prize-winning elderflower wine–and even labor-intensive goat cheeses.

The two women have a busy and apparently satisfying life until Susan goes off to Greece to find herself and something unusual finds Janet: a one-night stand that leaves her pregnant.  It’s her first time with a man, so that’s either luck or misfortune, how she and Susan react is worthy of a miniseries.

Bowen is absolutely brilliant when it comes to charting the highs and lows of an intimate relationship, the swift changes of mood minute-by-minute as well as over months and even years.  He finds comedy there, and tragedy too.

The writing throughout is rich with color in descriptions of flowers, shrubs, flowering trees, do-dads and knickknacks, and the narrator is like a deadpan story-teller trying hard not to smirk because she knows you’re going to be surprised and doesn’t want to give anything away.  I had to read passages aloud to my spouse because they were so amusing, as when Bowen writes that “the sound of raindrops on the window was like hundreds of old gentlemen rustling the pages of the Financial Times.”

At times you may feel like you’re in wacky P.G. Wodehouse territory: the adventures of an escaped pig which will surely make you laugh aloud.  At others, you’re entering the realm of Patricia Highsmith where the quotidian is most definitely going to be exploded.  I was also reminded of Stella Gibbons’ satirical Cold Comfort Farm, but Bowen has his own voice here and his own style because his narrator is so wonderfully intrusive and even challenging.

Special kudos have to go to the book designer: The Girls isn’t just a pleasure to read, it’s a distinct pleasure just to hold in your hands.  Readers should be grateful for the publisher’s mission to reprint forgotten novels that deserve new audiences–and do so with elegance and style.  This is must read for anyone who’s a fan of British fiction, crime fiction, and comic stories set in supposedly bucolic towns. ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations.

A Tense Summer Read: “Her, Too”

Kelly McCann is a superstar lawyer in the legal/psychological thriller Her, Too: She wins every single case, and each one brings her kudos, cash, and controversy. That’s because she defends wealthy men accused of sex crimes and in the courtroom she’s merciless, brutal.  

We first see her basking in triumph at a Philadelphia courthouse after a jury acquits the Big Pharma billionaire scientist she’s defending against several charges of rape. The media is out in full force and she could be a Roman Emperor accepting the adulation of the masses–even the protestors prove how famous she is.

She lived to win.  It was the entire secret of her success.  Her courtroom victories weren’t due to any great brilliance on her part.   She had no more talent than the average lawyer.  What she did have was this abiding lust for victory.

But the Wheel of Fortune turns very quickly in her case and she’s soon the victim of a grotesque sex crime herself, something unimaginable.  Thankfully the author doesn’t feel the need to dwell on the details, but what she does do beautifully is portray the new trap Kelly finds herself in and the emotional damage that she suffers.

How can she be free?  Revenge would be a start and the book takes on the feel of a caper as she tries to assemble just the right team to take on her assailant and destroy his reputation and his business.  But she’s out of her depth and is soon shocked by a series of threatening surprises.  Readers might be surprised themselves by some of the twists the story takes and how Kelly changes–and in the identity of the novel’s murderer.  I sure was.

The novel is strongest when it stays in Kelly’s head or in the head of her  investigator Javier because they are far more interesting and complex than the people around them.  Nonetheless, Her, Too is a deeply moving, gripping tale of power run amok and how its victims can fight back, as told by a former attorney who knows the legal system inside out.  It’s also the age-old tale of what happens to overweening pride.

Kistler is a masterful storyteller and I did not want to put the book down.  That may be a cliché, but it’s true. ★★★★

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and the author of 27 books including 10 Nick Hoffman Mysteries.

WWI “On A Knife Edge”

How did the Germans lose WWI when at times, according to this new history, they came close to winning early on?  The reasons are varied and fascinating in a beautifully detailed, in-depth exploration of German motives, perceptions, actions, and failures of imagination.

One determining factor was that Germany’s high command was riven by strategic and personal disputes and these also existed across the various “power centers” in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empire at the time including the Kaiser and his court, the German parliament, the army’s Supreme Command and the army itself.  Some generals wouldn’t even speak to each other for weeks at a time.  And conditions only got worse over time with miscommunications and fiction between generals and politicians, politicians and the high Command, with the Kaiser growing more and more delusional.

Just as significant, Germany’s new intelligence service was severely understaffed and thus prone to making wildly incorrect judgments, as for instance ranking the U.S. a less significant military power than Bulgaria. Or positing that England could be handily quarantined by only a handful of U-boats.  Far more devastating, in The Battle of Verdun, the Germans grossly overestimated French losses and never planned for heavy German losses.

German prejudice about the French was widespread among the powerful decision makers.  The French were under-rated in terms of their military performance, and perhaps just as seriously, as a people.  One high echelon leader thought that “the French national character showed a tendency towards hysterical mood swings.”  That’s funny and tragic at the same time.

Another military leader believed that Germany would always beat France no matter what, since “the character of our dear neighbours has hardly changed since 1870.”  Such dismissive and contemptuous views were widespread in Germany as a whole and certainly among the military’s elite, despite French superiority of numbers in many sectors of the Western Front and Germany’s continued inability to strike a knockout blow on their opponents.   As if such arrogance wasn’t enough to tip the scales against Germany, political and military leaders could not agree on war aims, what would be an acceptable peace agreement, and whether to annex conquered territory or not.  The politicians too often “chose the stupidest possible course of action” and overall throughout the war, “Germany’s  approach was largely incoherent and chaotic.”

Though tragedy abounds, sometimes the events slip into farce.  One example: Germany and Austria-Hungary had divided Russian Poland between them and wanted to mobilize a Polish army to fight against Russia.  They proclaimed a new Kingdom of Poland without there being a king, government, constitution, parliament or anything else you’d expect for a new nation.  The plan was a dud.

While the book is somewhat slow to get going, once the author delves deeper into the often chaotic decision-making process for Germany and its allies, this study becomes truly compelling.  I’ve read many books about WWI, but because this one focuses less on the battles and more on everything happening behind the scenes,  the progress of the war seems much clearer.  It’s a refreshing narrative and the memoirs, diaries, and letters of key figures that he quotes give the book startling immediacy.  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other publications as well as three public radio stations in Michigan. He recently reviewed the classic WWI novel All Quiet on the Western Front.

Classic War Novel

If you caught the recent Netflix film All Quiet on the Western Front and wondered about the book it’s based on, don’t hesitate to get the handsome Everyman’s Library edition. You’ll see why it’s considered one of the greatest war novels every written and more than that, you’ll be amazed at how it doesn’t sound translated.  The prose is that clear, that vivid, that compelling. Translation, bringing a book into another language and its culture, is an art and this version of the book is incredibly artful.

The story is simple and complex. Paul and his German schoolmates are basically bullied into signing up for the German army by their jingoistic teacher.  However patriotic they are, life in the trenches changes them utterly. 

Life and death aren’t topics to read about and discuss: they are both majestic and ephemeral. You can be killed at any minute by a sniper, an artillery shell, a mine–or crushed by a tank. Conversely, you can miraculously escape death by stepping out of a bunker for a smoke or an errand. 

The fear, the tension, the horror of seeing people die in myriad grotesque ways are like an acid bath.  The dark realizations hit him early and hard:

“We are no longer young men.  We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world.  We are refugees.  We are fleeing from ourselves.  From our lives.  We were eighteen years old and we had just begun to love the world and being in it; but we had to shoot at it.  The first shell to land went straight for our hearts.  We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress.  We don’t believe in those things anymore; we believe in the war.”

Paul experiences one horror after another, loses friends, is wounded, has to kill or be killed, and one of the most amazing chapters of the book is the time he’s trapped for three days in a shell crater with a dying man.  But there are also surprisingly moving and even comic moments of camaraderie as he and his fellow soldiers bond around incredible events that soon become ordinary.

The novel is short, fast-paced, devastating and seems oddly current, given the network of trenches that Russia has built in occupied Ukraine.  Anyone interested in the history of WWI or amazing fiction should read this book. ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael’s introduction to WWI was via a classic, The Guns of August, which he read one summer between sixth and seventh grade.  He recently learned that his paternal grandfather, murdered at Auschwitz, fought in that war.



Arkady Renko Returns

Though it’s set in Moscow, Kiev, and Crimea just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Independence Square doesn’t have the epic sweep of The Siberian Dilemma or the rich cultural insights of Tatiana.  

What this novel does have is a very classic, very clever mystery with some terrific misdirection, well-placed clues, and a killer who is, as you’d expect, the least likely person to have been a murderer.

In this tenth book of the series, Renko is struggling with the early onset of Parkinson’s which gives him balance issues and hallucinations, details apparently  drawn from the author’s own experience of the disease. 

Parkinson’s seems to have dulled Renko’s sarcasm about Russia’s cruel absurdities as well as his ability to describe scenes and settings in colorful detail.  However, the book moves quickly and Vladimir Putin is the terrifying menace that hovers over everyone in the book, whether innocent or corrupt.

Renko finds himself investigating two murders after having been stuck by his oafish, vindictive boss doing paperwork at a miserable little desk.  Along the way, his investigation is complicated by brutal cops beating freedom-loving protestors, a horde of nationalistic bikers, a greedy politician, a gorgeous young woman who falls into bed with him, and his former lover, Tatiana. 

Fans of the series will be pleased to see that his adopted son Zhenya is back, still hustling people over a chess board and that Renko is never smug in the way Sherlock Holmes can be.  Reaching one more dead end, he wisely realizes that he “didn’t even know what he didn’t know”–and that scares him, as well it should.

The story is ripped from the headlines with crazed Russians talking about the sanctity of their nation supposedly endangered by Western democracy, Satanism,  and homosexuals.  Too bad that Independence Square skimps on color and texture; when it does plunge into deeper description it feels somewhat muddled.  There’s a freakish set piece near the end where a crowd watches a sort of son et lumière show (with motorcycles!) about Russian history from the Bolshevik Revolution onward and it’s not always easy to visualize.

But that’s redeemed by a heroic effort of Renko’s which skillfully echos many classic edge-of-your-seat movie scenes that are set backstage. ★★★

The former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, Lev Raphael has read all of the previous Arkady Renko books at least twice, some of them three times.

Mystery and Mockery

My European-born mother was given to making pronouncements about life in the U.S. that were halfway between a judgment and an epigram. One of my favorites: “There is no such thing as enough in America.”

I thought of that while reading  the entertaining Yellowface, in which a struggling author, June Hayward, steals a manuscript from her famous, best-selling Chinese-American friend after she dies.  June fills in gaps, polishes it extensively, and gets it published as her original work.  She becomes a huge success, but every thing she gains makes her hungry for more.

It’s initially great fun to watch her first rave about the stolen manuscript, then slowly find fault with it, then fix the problems she sees and tone down the excesses, and finally claim that’s it’s undeniably hers because it’s so much better.  And isn’t she doing her friend a great service in making it a better book?

Selling the novel turns her world upside down and June is overwhelmed by her good fortune: a vast amount of money, a publishing house that really cares about her, headlines everywhere she turns, best-seller status, great reviews, profiles in prestigious magazines and newspapers, strangers recognizing her.  She becomes a celebrity author, though she knows that it could just as easily have been someone else who was picked to be turned into a star. 

The downside is her incredibly masochistic addiction to reading everything she can about herself in print and on social media, which can either be a serotonin boost (as she’s overly fond of saying) or infuriating when she’s accused of cultural appropriation because she’s white and the book is primarily about Chinese laborers in France during WWI.

Kuang certainly knows how to mock the publishing world as well as Robert Harris does in The Ghost Writer, and she takes special aim at complaints of cultural appropriation that will remind you of the controversy over American Dirt.  She also eviscerates what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery” that elevates certain writers for other reasons than the quality of their books.

Yellowface can be read as a sort of mystery-thriller because as soon as June steals the manuscript and decides to publish it, you feel a clock ticking: won’t someone discover her fraud and shame her–or worse?  Of course, it doesn’t take long for the predictable Twitter mobs to attack her, and the waves of Twitter warfare in this book are exhausting.

You may be wondering if the book ever explains why June steals Athena’s work, and the real answer goes beyond jealousy in a devastating set of revelations. 

Given that Kuang is the kind of megastar author who dies in this book, is her satire of the struggling friend empathetic or cruel?  That’s one question.  Another is the revised, stolen novel itself.  When June shares some sections of the book that she actually wrote (bragging about their brilliance), the writing doesn’t seem stellar, yet she claims the audience is under her spell.  Why didn’t Kuang’s editor pay special attention to those passages to make them more convincing? 

As reported in The Washington Post, this novel “is now at the center of a real-life publicity frenzy, its cover gracing tote bags, railway ads and a giant mural at the London Book Fair.”  That’s the kind of PR that June gets in the novel for her book.

Yellowface interrogates friendship, jealousy, the randomness of fame, and the truly bizarre realities of publishing today.  The last half really gathers steam and elevates the book above satire.  After you finish, you might well decide to cut Twitter loose and give up doom-scrolling forever.  If you can. . .  ★★★★

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Detroit Press and many other publications.