The Epiphany Machine, by David Burr Gerrard

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The Epiphany Machine

Along with the quest to find one’s purpose in life, the next biggest challenge a human can face is to figure out who they are and find a way to live with themselves. In David Burr Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine, we see that struggle over and over as Venter Lowood deals with the fallout from several lifetimes of bad decisions and misunderstandings. At the heart of all these decisions and misunderstandings is the eponymous machine, which tattoos an epiphany on the forearm of anyone who uses it. The epiphanies reveal truths, prophecy fates, and generally disrupt everything. And yet, for a book about figuring things out, The Epiphany Machine is a very satisfying read because it answers so many of the questions posed in its pages.

Venter Lowood was always going to have a screwed up childhood. Both of his parents got epiphany tattoos from Adam Lyons, the owner of the epiphany machine, that informed them that they would be terrible parents. Venter grows up nursing both mother and father issues before he is talked into a job by Lyons himself. For a few years, Venter records the oral histories of people who get tattoos—which then appear between the chapters of the novel—before he is talked out of believing in the powers of the machine by a know-it-all roommate. Once Venter falls out of belief in the machine, he drifts through life following the pushes and prods of the people he meets. But then, what do you expect from someone whose tattoo reads “Dependent on the opinions of others”?

The Epiphany Machine is Venter’s story, but it’s also the story of a group of people whose lives were irreparably changed by the machine. We learn about what happened to John Lennon and Mark David Chapman—who in this world received identical tattoos—the two murderous Rebecca Harts and Venter’s own Rebecca, the curious powers of the machine for identifying (or not) criminals, and how a person’s curiosity about and obliviousness to themselves is universal. After a character receives an epiphany tattoo, there is a stomach-dropping moment when the tattoo is revealed. The character tries to make sense of it. Very rarely does a character feel peace when they work out what their epiphany means. More often there are tears, outrage, or drastic and deadly actions.

All of Venter’s chapters and the oral histories layer on top of one another, providing clues that explain what the epiphanies really meant and how they were so often misinterpreted by their owners. Characters appear in each other’s oral histories so that I got to see what happened to secondary and tertiary characters when an epiphany tattoo derailed their lives. I really enjoyed seeing it all come together by the end. I found this book deeply satisfying since so many loose ends were tied up by the time I got to the end of the book. Usually, I only feel this kind of satisfaction after reading Dickens, who leaves no questions unanswered (though Gerrard delivered answers in far fewer pages).

If nothing else, The Epiphany Machine shows that people are always mysteries until you really listen to them. Adam Lyons, a flawed, vulgar, possible guru, was a master at listening to people. Until we can do that for each other, even having an epiphany tattooed into someone’s forearm won’t help us work out who someone really is. More than that, to unriddle a person, we need to know their stories and the stories of people who appear in the story of the person we want to know. Really knowing someone is a probably impossible linear regression. Fittingly then, I found The Epiphany Machine to be an ouroboros of a novel—just like its characters—and I loved puzzling it out as I read.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Bibliotherapeutic Uses: Recommend this for readers who might need their own epiphany because they don’t see something about themselves that they need to see or, perhaps, to readers who spend a little too much time looking for themselves instead of looking at the world and people around them.

No Backstage Pass for Me, Thanks

When I was in junior high, I took a typing class (yes I am that old) for reasons I don’t really remember. I’m a fast typer now but, back then, I was hampered by my inability to leave typos and mistakes behind. I would un-type three times as much as I actually submitted later. And I still do this. The reason I bring this up is because the memory of my terribly finicky typing was the first thing that popped into my head when I read that Quarterly was offering bookish folk the opportunity to get an author-annotated hardback every month by subscribing to PageHabit.

I want no part of this.

This might sound unreasonable—and I’m willing to admit that I am being a titch bit unreasonable—but this kind of behind-the-scenes look into authorial intent and the writerly process is something I’ve been avoiding for years. (Ever since I graduated with my BA in Literature, to be honest.) I prefer to form my own opinions about what a book is trying to tell me without the author jumping in to tell me what they meant when they wrote it. And I love to argue with other readers about what a book’s meaning. Having the author’s definitive answer would settle the question too quickly for most readers.

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Richard van Mensvoort

The other reason I don’t want an author-annotated copy of a book is because it strikes me as seeing how the sausage is made. I just want to enjoy the finished product and I learned when I was an English major that analyzing the text or having someone tell you what a book mean took a lot of the magic out of it. Knowing that an author struggled with a particular stretch of dialog or that they moved scenes around would serve as a constant reminder to me that I was reading a bunch of squiggles on paper. The illusion of story is fragile enough; there are too few books that can completely transport me. When I read, I want to ride around on the narrator’s shoulders and forget about work, my illness, the cats getting up to who know’s what in the kitchen, etc. Seeing an author’s notes about how they arranged the squiggles on the page in front of me would throw off my reading groove.

What about you, gentle readers? Would you subscribe to PageHabit?

Arrowood, by Mick Finlay

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Arrowood

William Arrowood hates Sherlock Holmes. The damned man is on everyone’s lips as the best detective of the age. Arrowood would argue (and does, repeatedly) that Holmes is sloppy and relies too much on physical evidence rather than witness statements and lies. In Arrowood, by Mick Finlay, we see a better argument for Arrowood’s superiority (or not) as the detective and his partner, Norman Barnett, track down a missing Frenchman and unravel a criminal conspiracy.

Arrowood begins in classic mystery fashion when a beautiful woman walks into the detective’s consulting room and pursues him to take her case. Miss Cousture’s brother has disappeared. The evidence suggests that he fled back to the sibling’s homeland, France. Arrowood is reluctant, even when she presses him with some much needed coin, but accepts the case only when he learns that the brother works for an old enemy. Mr. Cream was responsible for a death in Arrowood’s last big case. This new case offers the detective a way to take the villain down.

Arrowood is the kind of detective who can read lies in facial expressions and discover clues in omissions. His people skills can get witness and suspects to reveal much more than they meant. He hardly has to stir from his rooms above a bakery to gather information. His style of detecting is enabled by his partner, Barnett. Barnett does all the legwork and is frequently beaten by suspects—which is a useful, if painful way, of learning that they are on the right track. Barnett is also our narrator, so we solve the mystery along with him for the most part. Thankfully, Barnett is not an idiot the way Dr. Watson is portrayed in many of the Holmes’ stories; he just misses tiny clues that Arrowood can pick up on.

While we rarely see Holmes mess up, Arrowood and Barnett make mistake after mistake. Their history with the London Metropolitan Police means that the pair have almost no support as they barge into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. When Holmes does make a mistake, is usually because he’s been temporary outsmarted by a worthy adversary. When Arrowood screws up, its because of bad luck or because the villains are more vicious than anticipated.

I enjoyed the well-constructed mystery at the center of this novel and I particularly enjoyed Arrowood’s soliloquies about Holmes. I’m not sure I’ll follow the series, however. Apart from Arrowood’s potshots at Holmes, I didn’t love this novel. It’s a solid novel, but it didn’t thrill me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn

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Devil’s Call

Even though Li Lian was warned that three bad men were on their way to her De Soto, Nebraska home, she was not prepared for what would happen—not that night and not during the long months she would spend tracking down the man who killed her husband. Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn is a tale in the tradition of Western revenge, but with the added bonus of witchcraft and devilry. You see, Li Lian is a witch from a long line of witches and the man she’s hunting is no ordinary man.

Devil’s Call is told to us directly by Li Lian, though she is narrating what happened to her unborn child. She grew up without knowing the father who gave her Asian eyes and an Asian name. She didn’t want her own child to not know the kindness of her murdered husband. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Li Lian wants her child to understand the choices she made and who she was before she took up her quest for vengeance.

Li Lian tracks back and forth through her life and family history, revealing the witchy history of her female forbearers. While she tells us why the women in her family had to flee their ancestral Scotland, she also traces her too-brief courtship and life with her husband before launching into the steps she took to trace the very bad man who suddenly arrived to destroy her life. Each iteration of these parts of the story takes us deeper into a secret war between witches and the men (or creatures) that have hunted them over the centuries.

Devil’s Call also gets darker and darker as Li Lian learns more about George Dalton, the man (sort of) she is hunting. Dalton is not a hard man to follow, as the line goes, because he leaves dead people everywhere he goes. We know Li Lian will find him. What we don’t know is who will come out on top in the end. This is a tense, gripping read with an ending that turned everything I had learned on its head. Devil’s Call is short, but it packs a hell of a punch.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Kelsey Kennedy writes about a stunning 9,000 item collection of pop-up books. (Atlas Obscura)
  • Cher Tan reflects on how reading has shaped her life and psyche and vice versa. I can’t get enough of readers talking about how reading made them who they are. (The Catapult)
    • Pair this essay with Michael Sullivan’s delightful recounting of his reading life, which is entwined with his wife’s. (LitHub)
  • Canadian justices and lawyers put Lord and Lady Macbeth on trial during the Stratford Festival. (CBC Radio)
  • Samantha Haskell came up with a novel (heh) idea to help save the bookstore she’d inherited: community supported bookselling. (The New Yorker)
  • Caveat lector! David Gaughran explains Amazon’s fake book problem. (Let’s Get Digital)
  • Ian Dreiblatt has some hilariously surreal recipes for eating the great works of literature. (Moby Lives)

 

Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

Normally, I don’t think too hard about why I read what I do because I enjoy non-cozy murder mysteries, stories about restarting civilizations after plagues, and similar depressing fare. Oh I can point to my enjoyment of intellectual and ethical puzzles, but it doesn’t quite absolve me of my love of dark novels*. But a recent essay by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” got me to wondering about why readers—not just me—have made dystopian novels bestsellers for decades.

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Der alte Bücherkasten, by Friedrich Frotzel

Lepore begins with a series of plot synopses that made me realize just how dark authors have gotten in catering to our tastes for fucked up societies. Then she introduces one of her theories about why dystopias have proliferated, writing “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve turned to Wodehouse and Ben Aaronovitch to cheer myself up since the inauguration because so many things have gone awry in my country. (But that’s another blog entirely.) If I could find a utopian novel to read (they’re increasingly rare, as Lepore points out), I know that reading it would make me more depressed about politics than the actual news. Reading a utopian novel now would probably just highlight how far things have gone astray from how I had hoped. Reading dystopias is depressing, sure, but they perversely cheer me up because at least things aren’t that bad.

So far, I can agree with Lepore that we’ve lost something by not encouraging more authors to write about how the future can be something wonderful to look forward to. But then she makes this statement in the last paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

I can’t agree with this. In addition to reassuring me that at least things are that bad, dystopias remind me of the power of human endurance and that the bad times don’t last forever (though they can last an awfully long time). It’s possible that she’s reading even darker dystopias than I have, but Lepore cites The Hunger Games—which I really enjoyed because the protagonist Katniss Everdeen embodied the virtues of endurance and justice. The message I got from Katniss’ story was not that life is suffering and government is cruel and oppressive. The message I got was that, when things are not right, you fight back as hard as you can while keeping your eyes open for cynical manipulation or destructive vengeance.

Utopias make for hopeful reading, but I notice that most (if not all) of them skip over the struggles it would take to arrive in the promised land of post-scarcity and equality. Dystopias are all about struggle and sorrow and suffering and, right now, I think we need to be reminded that the fight for a future utopia is always hard but worthwhile and absolutely necessary.

But if you need a break from the struggle, it’s totally okay to go read Wodehouse** for a bit.


* This makes recommending books to people at my library tricky because so many of them tell me they’re looking for something light and fun.
** Or your favorite comfort read. I’ll even help you find something to read.

The Atlas of Forgotten Places, by Jenny D. Williams

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The Atlas of Forgotten Places

Atonement is one of the most difficult things for people to achieve, more so when the person trying to atone is the only one who can forgive. In The Atlas of Forgotten Places, by Jenny D. Williams, several of the main characters are seeking to atone for their own crimes or the crimes of their family members—and they’re trying to do so in the middle of an active war zone as the Ugandan army is routing out members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The emotional and physical conflicts in this book make for a nail-biting reading experience. Worse, it doesn’t follow the tropes of thrillers, so we don’t know until the very end if the protagonists live or not; there are no guarantees in The Atlas of Forgotten Places.

Sabine Hardt, a former aide worker from Germany, and Rose Akulu, a translator and transcriptionist who was once a captive of the LRA, take turns narrating the novel. Both are seeking someone they lost. In Sabine’s case, she’s looking for her niece after Lily failed to make her flight back to the States from Kampala. Rose is trying to find her lover, Ocen, who disappeared with Lily sometime in the weeks before Christmas, 2008. For the first third of The Atlas for Forgotten Places, the two women work separately to find their lost loved ones. After Sabine meets Rose’s boss, the two women strike a truce and team up to follow the faint trail Lily left behind.

While the two women try to find their lost ones, they each take time to reflect on what brought them to this place and this time: betrayals, lies, atonement. Both Rose and Sabine have had hard lives. In Rose’s case, the hardness came partly from her abduction and years with the LRA and partly from the guilt and grief she’s carried ever since. Sabine became an aide worker because of something that her grandfather did—to say more would spoil the revelation. Now she’s trying to find her niece in part because she wasn’t very supportive of Lily while Lily did her own stint of aide work.

The reflectiveness and uncertainty of The Atlas of Forgotten Places—along with the setting—make for a thriller elevated above the typical emotional shallowness of the genre. It touches on the sorrow and anger that a long civil war causes, the mad stubbornness of the men who wage that war, the seeming futility of aide work, and self-imposed quests for atonement. The Atlas of Forgotten Places refuses the easy path, right to its very last pages.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

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The Witches of New York

There is a feeling throughout Ami McKay’s entertaining novel, The Witches of New York, of a gathering storm. A war is brewing in New York between witches and their traditional enemies—people who take Exodus 22:18 very seriously—backed by some very scary demons. As the novel picks up speed, that feeling of dread builds, right up to the nail-bitingly tense ending. I hope that this book has sequels, because I enjoyed my walk on the wild side of a magical fin de siècle New York.

In September of 1880, Beatrice Dunn makes a wish: that she will become the shop assistant at Tea and Sympathy in New York. Because she makes the wish using a witch’s ladder charm, events line up to take her straight there and land the job. Her employers, Eleanor and Adelaide, are real witches and the perfect guides to help Beatrice explore the supernatural. Things aren’t that simple, though Beatrice doesn’t learn this until quite a bit later. Chapters narrated by other characters, accompanied by newspaper clippings and excerpts from a pamphlet by Cotton Mather on how to break a bewitching let us know that Beatrice, Eleanor, and Adelaide face serious danger from the deranged reverend at a nearby church, his equally disturbed organist, and their mysterious patron.

I was less interested in Beatrice (who serves mostly as plot catalyst and character-who-has-things-explained-to-them) than in her employers. Both Eleanor and Adelaide have fascinating and detailed backstories. Through them, we learn about the secret history of witchcraft (Eleanor) and the more scammy side (Adelaide) of fortune-telling and cold reading. Eleanor is cautious, devoted to her craft, and provides some much needed wisdom for Beatrice. Adelaide helps the girl develop confidence, by showing her how to put on a performance. (If this book had been more lighthearted, Adelaide would be a master of headology.)

There is a strong feminist streak in The Witches of New York. The witches, for all their faults, are sympathetically portrayed. Their opposites are very much not. The reverend and the organist, Mrs. Piddock, have the worst traits of un-Christian Christians: judgmental, unforgiving, fundamentalist, Puritanical. Mrs. Piddock is devoted to her faith. She believes she’s doing the right thing by stalking and harassing the witches, trying to keep people away from them. The reverend is a serial killer in the trappings of a witch hunter and man of God. Neither of them has a redeeming feature and there’s no doubt who we’re supposed to root for. I’m all for feminism, but it’s less interesting to me when our nuanced heroes take on unambiguously evil villains.

Much of The Witches of New York has the feel of a first novel in a series. So many characters are introduced (though a few meet a brutal end at the reverend’s hands) that it feels like McKay is setting up a chess board. There’s also a lot more attention paid to world-building than letting the plot race—which explains why this book is nearly 600 pages long. There’s enough episodic action to keep the exposition from slowing the pace too much, but I felt like the book is setting us up for an even longer story. The Witches of New York has a satisfying conclusion, but it leaves unfinished business.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.

Where the Light Falls, by Allison Pataki and Owen Pataki

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Where the Light Falls

Allison and Owen Pataki’s Where the Light Falls is the story of two parallel lives during the tumultuous years of the French Reign of Terror and the wars immediately after. André is the son of a marquis who struggles to escape the taint of being an aristocrat. Jean-Luc is an idealistic young lawyer who moved to Paris to be a part of the new government. Both of these naïve young men quickly learn that the truth is not enough to save them when they become the targets of men who are more than willing to use the mob’s bloodlust to settle old scores.

Where the Light Falls opens in 1792, a few months before the Battle of Valmy. Jean-Luc is working for the Revolutionary government, but only as a clerk cataloging the seized belongings of aristocrats and clergymen (most of whom have gone to the guillotine). He wants to do more, contenting himself with working pro bono for citizens with legal complains no one else will touch until something more meaningful comes along. Meanwhile, André serves in the new French Army as it defends itself from foreign forces that seek to restore Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to the throne. It takes several chapters for Jean-Luc and André’s paths to cross. The two finally meet when André’s commander, General Kellerman*, is denounced towards the end of the Terror.

Once the two join forces to try and save Kellerman, the parallels between Jean-Luc and André become more pronounced. André sees his military career trampled and his life endangered when he falls in love with the wrong girl. Jean-Luc grows increasingly troubled as he learns how cynical men are using the Revolution as a weapon. Both men are believers in truth and merit, hoping that honestly will win the day—only to be bitterly disappointed when they finally learn that the world doesn’t work that way, even in a city allegedly ruled according to the ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité**.

At times, Where the Light Falls skips over important history (most of the Terror, in fact). At others, we get detailed battle scenes that go on for pages (Valmy and the Battle of the Pyramids). I found this treatment very frustrating as I am fascinated by the French Revolution. I might have liked this book better if the characters—especially the female ones—had been more fully realized. (I was especially annoyed that Jean-Luc’s wife, who had a very interesting secret, got so little page time.) Apart from Jean-Luc and André, most of the characters are straight from central casting: a damsel in frequent distress, two drunkards, and two deliriously evil villains. I finished Where the Light Falls, but I was disappointed by all the missed opportunities and clumsy writing.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.


* The Patakis have no problem manipulating history for narrative purposes. What happens to Kellerman in Where the Light Falls is very different from what happened to the historical general.
** The novel also has a very irritating habit of including French for a bit of flavor only to have an immediate translation included in character dialog. Also, I doubt that eighteenth century French people would refer to each other as their “dates” at balls and such.