1918 Stories | Fiction Reviews

A well balanced story of grief and hardship as a family navigates loss and moving forward; historical fiction and thriller come together with a seamless blend of fact and fiction in post-World War I New Orleans

redstarMeissner, Susan. As Bright as Heaven. Berkley. Feb. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780399585968. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399585982. F

Told through alternating perspectives, Meissner’s (Secrets of a Charmed Life; A Fall of Marigolds) latest follows the story of the Bright family as they move to Philadelphia in 1918 to assume their inherited place within the family funeral business. The relocation is meant to ease the loss of Henry, their youngest member, but just as they start to navigate their grief, the Spanish flu hits the city, devastating them anew. Each of the women in this family confronts death differently: Pauline, the matriarch, embraces it as an everyday companion; Evelyn and Willa, the oldest and youngest daughters, respectively, run away with everything they have; while middle daughter Maggie aims to circumvent death entirely. When Maggie makes an impulsive choice at a crucial moment of the pandemic, her family’s life is forever altered. The reckoning of her choice unfolds in the second half of the novel and ultimately brings the story full circle. VERDICT Meissner’s prose maintains a balanced tone of sorrow throughout this novel. Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and the television show Six Feet Under will enjoy. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]—Tina Panik, Avon Free P.L., CT

Rich, Nathaniel. King Zeno. Farrar. Jan. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9780374181314. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780374716318. F

In this deft historical thriller, Rich (Odds Against Tomorrow) seamlessly blends fact with fiction as three characters attempt to secure their legacies in the shadow of a gruesome murder, with post–World War I New Orleans as the backdrop. During the summer of 1918, with the Spanish flu spreading rapidly and a weird new music catching on, an ax-wielding serial killer is on the loose. Isadore Zeno, surely the greatest jazz cornetist Crescent City has never heard, finds opportunity in the city’s terror to make his name. Det. William Bastrop, whose marriage has collapsed, sees cracking the case as a path to redemption. Beatrice Vizzini is the head of a crime family whose claim to legitimacy is staked on the construction of a giant canal that will return New Orleans to industrial glory, but her hulking, dim-witted son may derail it. Though these story lines do not converge until the climactic final chapter, they are absorbing enough on their own to keep readers engaged. The period details—most taken directly from the historical record—are expertly deployed. VERDICT A solid recommendation for admirers of James Lee Burke’s New Orleans-based “Dave Robicheaux” series and Thomas Mullen’s similarly brainy ­thrillers (Darktown; Lightning Men).—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

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