There is a misleading amount of bosom on the cover of The Turncoat. A historical romance heavy on the history, it stars Kate Grey, a Quaker farm girl-turned-Rebel spy in Colonial Philadelphia. Along the way, she becomes an expert in coquetry, secrets and (of course!) the trials of love. Though the jacket copy suggests a straight-up romance between Kate and British officer Peter Tremayne, the story is more complicated. Tremayne is absent for stretches of the story, fighting a war or whatever, and his cousin/best friend/cad-about-town, the Byronic Bayard Caine, steps in to romance Kate, who’s now styled as Lydia, the most popular secret Rebel spy in Philadelphia. There are plentiful descriptions of piercing blue eyes, well-turned ankles and glossy queued hair.
It’s appropriate that the term “bodice-ripper” has fallen out of favor, as there is surprisingly little bodice-ripping — or bodice-carefully-removing — in The Turncoat. It’s historical romance for those who like military tactics front and center, genealogy gnarled and explicit sex scenes rare (but, uh, pretty darn explicit). For a Colonial Quaker, Kate Grey knows an awful lot about warfare and probably an accurately small amount about her hymen. (Don’t worry, her paramour gets a hand mirror and Kate gets educated.)
While most of the main characters are fictional, Kate’s spy-mentor the Merry Widow, who teaches Kate about makeup and prophylactic sea sponges, is inspired by the real-life Widow of Mount Holly. Rumor has it that widow was none other than dear Betsy Ross, although it’s doubtful she was as hot a shot. There’s also a leading role for English spy master John Andre, who just straight-up bests everyone at everything secret-related with great panache, and deserves an updated biography immediately. Or perhaps his own romance: Who needs Kate Grey when we can have the bisexual swashbucklings of the dashing John Andre?
(March 5, NAL Trade, 432 pp.)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“Oh my God! How is it?”
Friends, co-workers and strangers at coffee shops all squeal when they see the bright-yellow cover of Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories. Anticipation for the newest book by the semi-secret Philadelphian (she’s teaching at Bryn Mawr and allegedly living somewhere near the Art Museum these days) was palpable — considering her accolades, including a Pulitzer nomination and future HBO adaptation of her 2011 novel Swamplandia!, the commotion isn’t surprising.
In Vampires, Russell returns to the whimsical, dark fable-like stories that worked so well in her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Obviously imaginative, the pieces draw you in like oversaturated 35 mm snapshots of strangers. They have a core of transformation: death, rebirth, the reformation of memories, major U.S. presidents turning into horses.
Nearly all of Russell’s stories from Vampires have been printed previously, but to have them collected is to add context to their stand-alone strangeness. Reading them together takes away the shock of the twists, freeing up space to take in her turns of language and careful construction.
Of course, in any collection you have hits and misses — “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a bit too much like a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency post, and the aforementioned horse story, “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” seems like a dream you’d have if you fell asleep while watching Sondheim’s Assassins with a stomach full of nachos. But any misgivings these side steps might provide are quickly mitigated by stories like “The New Veterans,” the crushing “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” and the uplifting Kafkaesque “Proving Up.” These are where Russell’s strengths — her ability to make the familiar weird and the weird familiar — resonate.
(Feb. 12, Knopf, 256 pp.)
Raise a half-full Solo cup for the mostly well-meaning oafs, the dudes whose adolescent growth spurts push them out of the “regular guy” category and into grocery-carrying and fight-breaking-up duties. Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr. — the temperamental giant at the center of Lynn Coady’s engrossing novel The Antagonist — knows the burdens of the oaf all too well. As a kid, he’s booting hooligans out of the family ice cream shop at the command of his short, hot-headed adoptive father. He eventually moves on to reluctant hockey enforcer, dive-bar bouncer and occasional bully. Goonish violence, and the accompanying shame, seems to follow him everywhere (“King Midas in reverse,” he calls himself), even when he’s paranoidly trying to avoid it. So tragicomically entertaining is Rank’s lifelong hapless oafism and family baggage (adopted, tiny dad, dead mom, etc.) that his old college frenemy Adam sneakily repurposes it all into a novel. Now a bit older and wiser, Rank responds to this exploitation of his life story with a year’s worth of emails to Adam, a hilarious and heartbreaking novel of his own that makes up the entirety of The Antagonist. Coady’s casual storytelling style is a stealthy vehicle for some wily insights into oft-ignored facets of modern masculinity. In her hands, everybody’s worthy of sympathy and dignity. Nobody’s a monster. Or everybody’s a monster. Or there’s no such thing as monsters.
(Jan. 22, Knopf, 304 pp.)
The Resurrectionist doesn’t want you to know it’s not real. From the sober, matter-of-fact prose of the first half of the book to the extensive anatomical diagrams of the second, this historical horror-fantasy tries its darndest to maintain the illusion. It mostly succeeds — though not without some drawbacks.
The premise, as laid out in the faux-biography at the beginning: Spencer Black, supposedly, was a Philadelphia surgeon studying at the Academy of Medicine obsessed with Mütter-worthy human mutations like Siamese twins, extra limbs and “lobster’s claw.” From his studies, Black comes to the controversial conclusion that humans are distantly descended from mythological creatures — thus, the second half of the book is a reproduction of his Codex Extinct Animalia, an encyclopedia of mermaids, harpies, sphinxes and the like. Because Dr. Black’s supposedly an artist as well, the detailed scientific analyses of these creatures are accompanied by beautiful hand-drawn illustrations. (The advance copy was missing some of the art, but there were more than enough to get the idea.)
Philly-based publisher Quirk Books is best known for putting out the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies series, and The Resurrectionist could be seen as another addition to the “Victorian grotesque” niche. But much of Pride’s success came from its tongue-in-cheek premise. The narrator of The Resurrectionist remains almost completely neutral throughout the tale, which does have its benefits; Dr. Black’s story is convincing no matter how absurd or horrific it gets.
But it’s played a bit too straight for its own good. The story’s ability to thrill or chill has gotten lost in its stoic, found-document method of telling, resulting in a book that was probably more fun to write than it is to read. However, much like Dr. Black himself, The Resurrectionist’s willingness to be different makes it a fascinating curio.
(May 21, Quirk Books, 208 pp.)