The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming; Schwartz & Wade books, 253 pages $18.99 Ages 12 and up.
Candace Fleming, a specialist in intelligent, wondrously researched, vivid biographies for young readers (“The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary” and “Amelia Lost,” to name two), offers a seamless, page-turner of a narrative, weaving three stories into one: a biography of the doomed Romanovs (Nicholas II, Alexandra and their five children), the tumultuous events that led to the Bolshevik revolution, and brief snippets in the voices of peasant farmers and factory workers, offering haunting insight into the extreme poverty and deprivation endured by Russia’s vast anonymous underclass.
Fleming exhaustively researched her subject but does not exhaust the reader. Her narrative races along, not a word wasted, as she brings to life Nicholas II, bullied by his formidable father and terribly unsuited to rule; the reclusive German-born Alexandra, whose extreme religiosity and concern for her hemophiliac son disastrously put her in thrall to Rasputin; the four girls who referred to themselves as OTMA, slept on army cots, and studied languages but not much else with mediocre tutors, and who died the most terrible deaths of all, the jewels sewn into their underwear acting like bulletproof vests, sending bullets ricocheting around that basement in Ekaterinberg.
– Jean Westmoore
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith; Mullholland Books (464 pages, $28)
As the woman who created Harry Potter, Rowling became one of the most famous authors on the planet.
Her first book for adults, 2012’s “The Casual Vacancy,” was a best-seller, but critics were not impressed. For her next venture, Rowling invented a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The manuscript featured Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran turned private detective. Called “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” it appeared in 2013, getting scant, if positive, attention. That all changed last July when Rowling was unmasked as Galbraith and the book shot up best-seller lists.
With “The Silkworm,” Rowling returns to Galbraith, framing a novel about a leaked manuscript, the turmoil it creates and its author’s grisly murder. As the book begins, Strike is in demand after his last case but struggling a bit financially; he’s a big guy who lost the lower half of one leg in Afghanistan. He is also the barely acknowledged illegitimate son of a recognizable rock star. He has an attractive assistant, Robin, and while she’s engaged and he has sworn off romance, there is a hum of possibility between them.
Strike agrees to help a woman find her husband, an author who disappeared in a huff after his agent told him that his latest book, “Bombyx Mori,” was unpublishable. Rumors are flying about its contents, which supposedly trash everyone who works in publishing. The only known copy is locked up in an editor’s safe.
The missing author, arrogant and bitter, descended into writing lurid works after a promising literary debut. His wife’s chief concern is for their disabled daughter, a childlike adult who lives at home. Then Strike finds his body, gruesomely murdered in a manner that echoes the secret manuscript.
This puts attention on the unpublished book, which is a bloody, sexually explicit tale. It is also, we discover, not so secret: The editor, an absent-minded alcoholic, had shared the safe’s combination with his staff.
Strike ends up with a copy, which he finds nightmarish.
Sorting through the possibilities brings Strike to a powerful publisher, a famous author, a friend who died too young and an anonymous satire that led to a spouse’s suicide.
The plot zings along, Strike marches through a wintry London that makes him increasingly vulnerable with his bad leg. Robin’s talents are essential, but she worries that Strike doesn’t see them, and her personal and professional life seem to be on a crash course.
Rowling is extraordinarily good at filling her mystery with fleshed-out characters. Even simple walk-ons have dimension, oddity, nuance. She occasionally overdoes it on description: “When she expelled smoke from her scarlet mouth she looked truly dragonish, with her shining black eyes,” she writes of the domineering agent.
At the same time, “The Silkworm” is set in the very real world of British publishing, which makes it tempting to look for corollaries.
This is a fun parlor game that leads into a hall of mirrors. We’re reading a book set in a fictional version of the British publishing industry that’s about a book that mocks this fictional publishing industry. Everyone is trying to guess who is who.
All that makes “The Silkworm” swift and satisfying, especially when read through the lens of secrets and fame and the famous writer behind it all.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Rowling says that writing as Robert Galbraith “has been pure joy.” I hope she continues with the Strike mysteries, under whatever name she likes.
– Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times