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After Life
Rhian Ellis
292 pp.


Rhian Ellis's debut novel, After Life, opens with a wonderfully promising first line: "First I had to get his body into the boat." Ah, one thinks: a body, a boat, a murderous narrator. What more could one hope for?

Lots, as it turns out.

The murderous narrator, Naomi Ash, is a twenty-one-year-old medium who lives in America's largest community of mediums and sundry spiritualists (Train Line, New York), and the boat into which she's struggling to get the body (her boyfriend's, we soon learn; name: Peter) belongs (in a way) to her mother, who is herself a medium who fled New Orleans a decade ago (with Naomi in tow) when the cops hassled her too much.

I know what you're thinking: Um, all right, sure. But what about the body?

Motive. Victim's full identity. Victim's precise relationship to the murderer. It's the standard stuff you expect to be handed over rather quickly, yes?

Not this time.

Instead, Naomi loads her victim's body into the boat, rows it to a discreet spot, buries it on the shore and lets it lie undisturbed while she tells us how, precisely, she came to be a popular medium (with real visions, no less) in Train Line. It's a cunning trick on Ellis's part, of course, because Naomi's story humanizes her so completely that by the time she actually gets to the motive behind the murder (to say nothing of the murder itself) she's fully two-thirds into her story, and she's won us over. For a woman who opens her story with a dead body, she's a whoppingly appealing character.

But murder will out, as they say. Or to be more precise, rich people will eventually want new lakefront mansions, and backhoes will find buried bodies if they happen to lie under their planned foundations. Which, as it happens, is precisely what happens with Naomi's Peter: ten years after the murder, he's suddenly in the news. Unidentified, but not (inevitably) for long. And then--you should probably have guessed this part already--Peter's voice calls out to Naomi during one of her readings. (How's that for raising the guilt and paranoia levels to Hitchcockian heights?)

To make matters worse, Naomi's mother is hell-bent on communicating with Peter's spirit herself (although she doesn't know it's Peter's) in order to salvage her reputation as a medium. (Her brand of spiritualism has evolved from floating tables, ghostly voices and mysterious gusts of perfume to a level of physicality that might by turns shock, excite or embarrass you.)

What's a girl to do?

Wel, if you're Naomi, you might consider trying to volunteer your services to the cops as well, to misdirect them and blunt your mother's efforts, if she ever manages to score a bull's eye.

Ellis does a stellar job with the minutiae of the medium's daily world--from the mechanics of disembodied voices to the individual traits of her various mediums--and her skill at manipulating and massaging her story along such an intoxicatingly sinuous line (in a first novel, no less!) is nothing short of stunning. This is, hands down, one of the two best, most intelligent psychological thrillers I've read this year. (The other, by the way, is Penelope Evans's First Fruits--click here for my review of it.)

Don't miss this one.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Sex and Real Estate
Marjorie Garber
Pantheon Books
245 pp.



"What do college students talk about with their roommates?" Marjorie Garber asks in her new, fetchingly titled book, Sex and Real Estate. "Sex. Twenty years later, what do they talk about with their friends and associates? Real Estate. And with the same gleam in their eyes." The evidence that we do, in fact, blur the two--sex and real estate, or to load the pairing with greater complexities, sex and home--is glaringly obvious, particularly to devotees of shelter magazines and anyone who's seen a Calgon commercial ("Calgon, take me away!") And it makes for wonderful material on which to build a book, as Garber demonstrates abundantly.

While the book's eight essays are surprisingly wide-ranging (she covers everything from Carl Jung to color restrictions in historical districts), Garber's writing voices are possibly even more diverse. In some of the lighter essays (like the introductory "Sex and Real Estate" and "The House as Beloved"), Garber writes in a casual, even seductively comfortable voice that makes reading effortless and should remind many readers of Witold Rybczynski's voice in his classic Home. She doesn't write with Rybczynski's historical focus, but the associative examples she draws from contemporary life are well-chosen and strongly presented. In other essays (like "The House as Mother," which deals in part with Freudian interpretations of the concept of home), Garber writes in a decidedly more academic tone, which is certainly to be expected of a Harvard English professor. (Garber is also the director of Harvard's Humanities Center).

One is tempted, of course, to say that her casual writing voice is like a comfortably aged leather club chair, as opposed to the harshly severe Mies van der Rohe style of her more strident academic voice. But we probably should avoid furniture metaphors and say, simply, that Garber's range ( in both voice and topics) is so broad that everyone from do-it-yourself restorers and This Old House voyeurs to well-read interior designers should find the book enthralling.

Along the way, they will learn some interesting facts to toss out at their next housewarming, like, for instance, this tidbit: "the legs of Victorian pianos were draped and covered with fabric because it was thought indecent to let them show." And while we snicker about those Victorian prudes, perhaps we should (since, after all, the book's subject interests you enough to have read this far) ask ourselves whether we house lovers should worry about whether we are in fact suffering from a rare--indeed forgotten-- disease that the Victorians' forebears would have recognized: homesickness, which was "[o]nce regarded as a 'real' illness--in the late eighteenth century doctors often diagnosed 'the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name Nostalgia."

Sadly, a cure is not listed.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Wreck of the Medusa
Alexander McKee
294 pp.



On June 17, 1816, a French frigate named the Medusa set out from Rochefort, France, for West Africa. It was supposed to lead a convoy of four ships to the French colony of Senegal, which was being returned to the French by its English captors as part of the settlement that followed Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. But, as Alexander McKee writes in his brilliantly researched account, Wreck of the Medusa, the Medusa's captain was not sufficiently experienced to guide the convoy along the coast of West Africa, which, McKee writes, "ranked as one of the least-known and most imperfectly charted areas in the world." Nor was he willing to rely on his well-trained, largely Republican officers for advice (the captain was an aristocrat who had accepted exile during the Revolution). Instead, he turned for advice to a passenger who, McKee writes, "had never served in the Navy and was not now a member of the crew but who claimed vast sea-going experience. In all societies one meets people like this and they usually turn out to be bank managers, postmen or butchers." In time, the captain ordered the officers to treat his passenger-guide as the ship's pilot. To make matters worse, the captain ignored written orders that he keep the convoy close together, and he soon sailed ahead of the other ships and used the coastline as his navigation device rather than sailing a much safer route out of the sight of land (and out of the reach of shallow waters).

Inevitably, the Medusa went aground on the Arguin Bank, "a vast uncharted sandbank stretching many miles out from the coast north of Senegal." And that's when the real trouble started. Rather than ferry passengers to shore in the Medusa's six lifeboats, a large, ungainly, flat raft was built, and after it and the other boats were mostly filled, the captain shouted that he'd be right back to join the others on the raftand then he hastily fled and jumped into his own barge at the front of the line. Of course, since there were still at least eighty passengers and crewmen on the Medusa at that moment, the captain risked execution for abandoning his ship prematurely, but as he later argued, he was now the captain of a flotilla of lifeboats, and he needed to be at the front of the line. Unfortunately, the life raft didn't respond promptly to the other boats' towing efforts, and whether the line was cut (as many survivors claimed) or merely broke under the strain, the 150 people on the life raft soon found themselves adrift and, since solid timbers aren't particularly buoyant, waist-deep in seawater.

Wreck of the Medusa was originally published in 1975 (under the title, Death Raft), when the Alive! craze was just a year old. (McKee's interest in survival stories was decades-old by then.) But tales of cannibalism (yes, the survivors on the life raftpartook) and desperate survival in extreme conditions (some people survived by abandoning their life boats and hiking through the Sahara desert) are perennial favorites, and Wreck of the Medusa is a true classic of the tradition. Anyone remotely interested in the subject (or anyone simply needing a reason to be happy they're on secure land) must read it.

--Woody Arbunkle

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The End of War: A Novel of the Race for Berlin
David L. Robbins
Bantam Books
398 pp.



David L. Robbins's The End of War, his second novel set in the Second World War, opens on New Year's Eve, 1944. D-Day is seven months in the past, and Hitler has staged a massive, unexpected counter-offensive in the Ardennes forests. It's a seemingly hopeless, last-ditch effort to keep the Allies from rolling into Germany and taking Berlin, but for a while at least, it works. After the Nazis succeed in advancing a group of soldiers westward, it becomes known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Charley Bandy, a photographer for Life Magazine, has just returned stateside, expecting the war to end soon, but with Hitler's Western advances against the Allies, he realizes he has to return to the war in order to document the unexpectedly dramatic fight for Berlin. In the meantime, on the Eastern Front, Ilya Shokhin, a Soviet soldier and veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, is moving toward Berlin with a prison battalion and trying to win back (through courage under fire) the freedom and military rank he lost after a relative crossed Stalin. And Lottie, a cellist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, endures the grim endgame with her fellow frightened Berliners, hiding in cellars during the Allied bombing raids and praying the Americans reach Berlin before the Soviets do.

Unfortunately for Lottie, the Americans--or at least Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower--aren't willing to claim Berlin for themselves at the expense of friendly relations with the Soviets. With a strong eye for political strategy, Robbins lays bare the reasons the American strategy is flawed, and why Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin are right to play a subtle psychological war between themselves with Berlin as the ultimate prize. If the British get there first, their claim to be a powerful empire will survive intact; if the Soviets get there first, they cement their place in the new world order. Only the Americans (at least Roosevelt and Eisenhower) fail to see how vital Berlin is: lose it to the Soviets and the Soviets are suddenly serious contenders on the world stage, with eastern Europe in its grasp and western Europe at its fingertips.

Robbins tells his story in a clear, methodical way, crosscutting between his three 'human' characters (Charley, Ilya and Lottie) and what he calls his three Olympian characters (Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill) smoothly and dynamically enough to keep his readers moving through the text happily. It's a superb solution for a sticky problem historical novelists face--how does one enthrall the reader with foot-soldier stories while doing justice to the complexities of war strategy and politics?--and Robbins is justified, I think, in calling it a structure in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

Robbins has done his research thoroughly, and he clearly understands the military and political aspects of his Olympian characters' stories. But it's the smaller scenes with the 'human' characters that linger, I think: Charley stumbling onto a collection of frozen soldiers in the woods; Lottie watching her mother apprehensively as she tries to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a bomb shelter. Or perhaps most grimly, Lottie helping her mother butcher a dead, rotting horse on a Berlin street under the cover of darkness. In these scenes, Robbins shows the sort of strong visual imagination an historical writer needs to bring history vividly to life.

Robbins is a serious writer who respects his craft and his subject, and he's not to be missed by anyone who enjoys historical fiction or World War II narratives.

--Doug Childers

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