The Spirit Photographer, by Jon Michael Varese

35407656When I requested The Spirit Photographer, by Jon Michael Varese, I had no idea that the story of a man who claims to take pictures of spirits would take me into the hell of American slavery and the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act. But now that I think about it, the opening scenes represent a moment in which the crimes of the past and the frauds of 1870 Boston come together into one damaging, disturbing photo, in which a senator and his wife appear to be shadowed by a young Black woman who should not be there.

Edward Moody is a celebrity in Boston’s Spiritualist community, but he’s not really happy about it. He’s grieving for the lost love of his life, who disappeared before the Civil War. Because he is numb with grief, it doesn’t really bother him to dupe people who come in for spirit photographs that will show their dead loved ones hovering around them. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it all comes crashing down when the Garretts sit for their portrait. Mrs. Garrett is expecting to see their son, who died at age three. They all recognized the Black woman who appears behind the Garretts. Isabelle is Moody’s lost love and the Garrett’s servant.

After the photo, the Garretts are so bothered by it—and what it might reveal about their own past—that they call in a family friend to arrest Moody for fraud. Meanwhile, Moody and his new assistant, Joseph Winter (who has ulterior motives of his own), are off on a quest to answer what they think is Isabelle’s call to find her. Moody and Winter head south, to New Orleans, where they think Isabelle was born. They are followed by shadowy men, one of whom wants to silence them both forever.

The Spirit Photographer moves back and forth between Moody and Winter’s journey into an American South that is being forcibly Reconstructed in spite of White efforts to reestablish something like slavery and the Garretts’ journey back into a past that they’ve been suppressing for almost twenty years. With each chapter, we learn more about the America of 1870. Even five years after the end of the Civil War, the nation has barely moved on. This isn’t really a surprise, considering the crimes that people committed against each other before, during, and after the war. Without saying too much about the ending of the novel, I can say that at least in this little corner of America, there is a little bit of justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.


Downdrift, by Johanna Drucker

33912091Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is the first (and probably only) book I’ve ever read that was narrated by a microorganism. Funny enough, this isn’t the strangest thing about the novel. This novel imagines a world in which animals, from lions and house cats to mice and badgers to flies, start to behave like humans. They stop hunting each other (except for some hold out species) and start social networking, data-mining, building homes, breeding hybrid, species, running food stands, suing each other, and other activities. Downdrift is very much a thought experiment and, while it probably didn’t have to be as long as it is, still offers plenty to intrigue readers.

Our narrator is an Archaeon, a very old type of single-celled organism. Because it has colonies across the planet—and because connections between animals species are rapidly growing during the downdrift—it is able to follow two cats as they wander the world on their way to meet up. Only Callie the house cat has a name. The other cat, a male lion, ends up traveling across oceans to briefly meet Callie. The meeting isn’t really the point of this book; it really just gives the rest of the narrative something to hang on to as it primarily consists of vignettes.

In short scenes, most only a couple of paragraphs long, the Archaeon, the lion, and Callie encounter species from bacteria to elephants in the grip of downdrift. No one knows what caused so many species to start adopting the behaviors of humans that aren’t essential for life or reproduction. Callie and the lion frequently have to fight against their biological needs to adapt to the fact that prey species can no longer be hunted without serious social and legal repercussions. They’re hungry a lot of the time in this book and, being cats, they’re not temperamentally suited to work. (A brief scene about archivist cats sleeping on piles of unsorted documents made me laugh.) So, they wander and observe and steal food when they can.

One of the main characters in this book is an East African lion.
(Image via Wikicommons)

Seeing all these animals trying to adopt law, clothing, and the rest highlights how strange most of human behavior really is. More, it shows how unnecessarily complicated and dysfunctional our ways are. We’ve come a long way from our hunter-gatherer days. Downdrift doesn’t argue that the animals—including Homo sapiens—need to revert to the old ways. After all, nature is red in tooth and claw most of the time. But I think it argues for an examination of these activities to see if they’re beneficial or not.

It’s hard for me to see Downdrift as anything other than a slightly overgrown thought experiment. Unlike most thought experiments that I’ve read, however, I genuinely enjoyed this one. It’s probably best read in small doses, so that readers have time to ponder the many ideas this book touches on. Reading it all in one go risks catching a dose of the melancholy that infects the elephants and tigers. Because, if nothing else, Downdrift forces us to ask questions about how much our ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed, and whether it’s possible to put things right again.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

The Changeling, by Joy Williams

35276867If I hadn’t noticed the other editions of The Changeling, by Joy Williams, on Goodreads, I would not have figured out that this book was originally published 40 years ago. It’s fairy-tale-like portrayal of a very strange and disturbing family on an off shore American island could have been set in almost any time and any place. This is certainly true of the novel’s central story of a woman descending into madness while her family insists that everything is fine and that she just needs a little “rest.” The Changeling is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in a long time.

Pearl tells is over and over that she wants what’s best for her son, Sam, when we meet her in a hotel in Florida. There is something very wrong about the island and the family she fled. Unfortunately for both of them, Pearl returns to her hotel room and finds the husband she ran away from waiting for her. Her brief escape is over. Even worse, the plane that they board to take them back “home” almost immediately crashes. Her husband is dead. She and her child are never quiet the same, even after they’re escorted back home by her husband’s sinister brother, Thomas.

Pearl’s interior monologue at the hotel clues us in to the fact that things are deeply wrong on the island. Thomas, the leader of what might be called a cult if they had more rules, is intent on raising children with complete freedom. We never learn what he’s after. He just tells Pearl and the rest of the adults that things are fine while children concoct a small culture that is flavored by medieval philosophy, a dash of Lord of the Flies, and narcissistic whimsy.

Because her life, before and after her escape, involves spending large amounts of time with these children, Pearl is often adrift in what is real and what isn’t. Even though she’s supposed to be recovering, she is often the rare parental voice on the island asking the children to stop this or that. They don’t listen to her of course, but she tries. When she starts to see very strange things (children changing into animals, for example), Pearl falls headlong into what I think is madness and what other readers might more charitably call a fairy tale. I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong. There is a lot in this book to make everyone question what they’re really seeing.

The Changeling is a difficult read because Pearl never gets any respite from the oddness of the children and the island. Because we spend the entire novel in Pearl’s head, neither do we. It is mentally exhausting to constantly question what’s real and what’s not. I suspect this mental exhaustion is exactly what we’re supposed to feel, given that I think this book is about a descent into insanity. I would recommend this to readers who are looking for a challenge, for a novel that makes them forget everything that’s going on around them even if it makes them question their own sanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

This week on the bookish internet

Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris

35791945There are many factors that contribute to the creation of a person. Three of them are highlighted in Mary Morris’ expansive family saga, Gateway to the Moon. First, there is our family history, portrayed here by the harrowing tale of the Cordero de Torres family from 1492 to the 1600s. Next, there is what happens to someone during their life, seen in the struggles of Elena Torres to make peace with the night a group of teenage boys attacked and raped her. Lastly, there is one’s own internal fire, which can propel a person like Miguel Torres out of his poor circumstances, past his mistakes, to a distinguished career as an astrobiologist. This novel moves slowly, but offers plenty of food for thought.

Miguel Torres comes from a long line of Jews, though he does not know it. Four hundred years before he was born, the Cordero and Torres family were forced to convert by royal decree (and brutally, sometimes fatally, enforced by the Inquisition). Even though his ancestors were persecuted, hints of Judaism survived. Miguel’s mother lights candles and says a blessing before dinner Friday night. No one in his New Mexico town of Entrada de la Luna eats pork or mixes dairy with meat. If you ask any of them, they’ll say they’re Catholic or not that religious. Not a lot of this matters particularly to Miguel, who is much more interested in what’s going on among the stars and on other planets until he gets a job with the newly arrived Rothsteins as a babysitter.

While we watch Miguel struggle with his attraction to Rachel Rothstein and wonder about the universe, we also get chapters narrated from the perspective of his putative aunt Elena. After her attack, Elena left home on a dance scholarship. I would say that she left and never looked back except she is constantly looking back. She travels the world trying to get as far away from who she was as she can, but she can’t forget—especially after she eats a dish of lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots in Morocco that is almost exactly like the one her grandmother used to make back in Entrada.

To me the most interest sections were the chapters set in the 1490s, 1500s, and 1600s. These chapters follow fathers, mothers, sons, and wives as the Corderos and Torreses travel or emigrate permanently to the New World. These families converted to Catholicism under pain of death. Though they appear in public to practice Catholicism, they keep their Jewish faith and customs alive in secret. They keep these things alive so long that their descendants forget why they do them and accept these things as tradition. On the one hand, it’s sad that custom and ritual lose their meaning entirely. What is tradition without meaning, after all? Not only that, but members of the family paid high prices in money and lives to preserve the meaning of those traditions. But on the other hand, it means there is a little piece of secret Judaism being passed on in New Mexico of all places.

Gateway to the Moon has a leisurely pace, giving readers plenty of time to think about what they’re reading and why we get so many perspectives. This book offers us many opportunities to meditate on identity, purpose, faith, forgiveness, and many other topics, with just enough plot to keep our brains from melting under the strain of thinking about high concepts for extended periods of time. In sum, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would.

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

The Forgotten Ones, by Steena Holmes

36097616I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book about digging up family skeletons in which the skeletons are so stubbornly buried. It takes a very long time for Elle to learn the entire story of where she came from and who her family is in The Forgotten Ones, by Steena Holmes. By the end of the book, her entire world will be turned upside down. There are answers, but there is an awful lot of heartache.

At the beginning of The Forgotten Ones, Elle is a nurse in Ontario with a mentally ill artist mother, Anna Marie. Her mother told her that her grandparents are dead. Because her mother has dissociative identity disorder, her only stability came from Grace, her mother’s caretaker and basically Elle’s second mother. This might have gone on indefinitely if Elle’s roommate hadn’t discovered that the dying man in her ward is Elle’s grandfather, David.

Anna Marie pleads with Elle not to talk to David. She wants secrets to remain secret. But Elle is too curious to leave things along. She visits David and wrangles out of him a promise to tell her about her mother and why Anna Marie hates David so much. My brain came up with plenty of reasons to explain the estrangement, but I was completely wrong about this very disturbed family. When the secrets finally come out of David and Anna Marie, I was floored.

The Forgotten Ones uses a writing trick that I find rather annoying. Especially at the beginning, Holmes uses a lot of one-sentence paragraph. This settles down after a few chapters, thankfully. And the strangeness and shock of Elle’s family’s secrets kept me going through my annoyance. In fact, I liked this book more and more as I kept reading. The Forgotten Ones ended up being a very original take on the uncovering-family-secrets subgenre. I’m glad I finished it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 April 2018.

Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

35087548One of the firmest rules I follow in my reading is that I do not read books about pets. I don’t read these books because the pet almost always dies and I can’t handle that. But I have broken this rule for Damian Dibben’s Tomorrow, because the dog in the book doesn’t die—even after waiting for his master to return for him after two hundred years.

Our canine protagonist has been with his master for a long time. His earliest memories are of roaming the castle of Elsinore and going oyster digging with his master in the early 1600s. His master is a chymyst (he serves as the model for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, but has issues with his portrayals). They travel from court to court, where the master offers his services as a natural philosopher, doctor, or other profession that helps fund his personal researches. Our hero and his master are not the only immortal beings wandering around Europe and their happily peripatetic lifestyle is disrupted when Vilder blows into town to make demands.

One of those interruptions separates dog and man in the late 1600s in Venice, though our hero doesn’t know it until later. Our poor narrator spends almost two hundred years waiting for his master in Venice, following his last instructions to stay put if they get separated. In 1815, however, he has enough and decides to start actively looking for his master, along with his companion, an ordinary street dog named Sporco.

Tomorrow moves back and forth in time from the 1600s to the 1800s. Unlike other books about immortal characters, we’re not inside the worldweary head of a human. Instead, we are off to one side while humans wonder what their purpose is and whether it’s a bad thing to be immortal. Because we’re in the head of an extremely loyal dog, Tomorrow is more a meditation about what we might do for the people (and animals) we love. Without the love of another, we learn, life is pretty pointless. It was a surprisingly sweet book, with plenty of interesting history to keep it all from getting too saccharine.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2018.

Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden

35297462If one’s parents are from Europe and emigrated to America in the late 1940s or early 1950s, it’s a given that those parents have horrors in their background that they don’t want to talk to their children about. Such is the case for Michael Daniels, the protagonist of Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden. Michael is the children of Russians. He knows that they come from somewhere in Ukraine, that they came over in waves, and that he is not supposed to ask them questions about their past. All this goes out the window when Michael finds his beloved grandmother shot dead in the family’s candy and soda shop.

Michael is living the American dream at the opening of Nothing is Forgotten. His family is a success. He’s got little to worry about other than girls and his suddenly popular radio program. (Making fun of Nikita Khrushchev is a winner in the early 1960s.) But then his grandmother, Emma, is murdered and he is whisked away to Europe to reprise his radio show in Munich at a station with a similar mission to Radio Free Europe. His family’s past follows Michael to Europe and, before long, he just throws his job out the window and decides to figure out where his grandmother came from and who might have wanted to murder him.

Fortunately for this somewhat naive American, Michael has a partner in Yulianna Kosoy, who he meets through a smuggler who does jobs for the CIA, the KGB, Mossad, and probably a bunch of other intelligence agencies. (His bosses at Four Freedoms are well connected.) Once Michael and Yuli join forces, they start to follow the little things Michael remembers his grandmother said and the clues she left for him to follow through her old haunts. For a novel that starts with making fun of Russians and involves bookmakers in the backroom of the Daniels’ family shop, I was surprised at how deeply this book dove into the Holocaust and the hunt for war criminals who got away after the war. Michael’s hunch that her death was because of something that happened to her during the war turns out to be correct.

Nothing is Forgotten isn’t always plausible. People are weirdly helpful to Michael and Yuli throughout their travels. But I was moved at the horrors that Michael’s grandmother survived, and admired the love she shows to her grandson and the children who visit the family shop. I was right behind Michael and Yuli as they dug into Emma’s past and did their best to put right things that Emma was never able to. For all its sadness, this book provides a delicious dose of justice at the end that I really enjoyed.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

The Hope and Anchor, by Julia Kite

38168618Neely and Andrea are linked by one woman that they love, but don’t actually know. It’s only when Angela goes missing at the beginning of Julia Kite’s The Hope and Anchor that they realize how little they know about her. Her absence is a huge hole in their lives, especially for her girlfriend, Neely. As Neely wanders the streets, looking for Angela and questioning their mutual acquaintances about where she might have gone, the novel grows ever more tragic. By the end, I was stunned at the emotion pouring out of the book.

Neely and Angela live on Harrow Road, in West London, but neither of them is there at the opening of The Hope and Anchor. Neely is returning from an ill-advised one night stand with Sam. Angela never turns up after an evening of mysterious errands that Neely only learns about much later. As Neely walks up and down London’s streets, wracking her brains for any clue about where Angela might have gone, we learn about Angela’s tragic, brutal past and the mismatches between the two. Neely is middle-class, intelligent, but moans about how she just hasn’t made a success of herself. Angela is from a poor neighborhood. Her life with Neely is much better than what she had as a child.

Despite the mismatches of expectations, Neely and Angela make each other happy in that ineffable way that soulmates do. Which makes this novel all the more heartbreaking when we and Neely find out what happened the night Angela went missing. Most of the book focuses on Neely, but we also get to see how this disappearance affects Angela’s sister, Andrea. After getting the news, Andrea is beset by memories of how violent and angry she used to be in her efforts to protect her sister. Andrea had managed to put most of her past behind her after marrying and having children. But after learning about Angela, it all comes flooding back. Like Neely, Andrea isn’t sure how to be without Angela.

The ending of The Hope and Anchor is explosive. The beginning of the novel didn’t lead me to expect where it would end up. This isn’t to say that the ending was out-of-character. In retrospect, it fits, because this book is all about what one finds after kicking over metaphorical rocks to see what awful things are crawling around underneath. The last rock that gets kicked over in this book is a doozy. Readers who are interested in taking this book on should start bracing themselves around the halfway point. The Hope and Anchor really packs a wallop.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Hotel on Shadow Lake, by Daniela Tully

36860698Maya Weisberg, the protagonist of Daniela Tully’s underwhelming Hotel on Shadow Lake, is on a quest to find out what happened to her grandmother. Martha Weisberg’s remains were found near a resort in upstate New York. This is strange because, as far as Maya knows, her grandmother would never travel outside of Germany and because the remains show that her grandmother was murdered. Maya travels to New York, twenty-some years after Martha went missing, to find out what happened and uncover her grandmother’s secrets.

This uncovering of secrets comes in the form of long sections of either flashback or Maya reading a letter. These chapters, at first, seem to have little bearing on the mystery at hand. Eventually, they do explain what happened to Martha and why. My problem was that these sections run longer than a chapter and just seem too long, which makes this book a clunky read. My other problem is that the one sex scene in the book is written in three or four cliché-ridden sentences that set my eyes to rolling. It is so nondescript that I’m really just assuming that two characters had sex.

Maya’s digging into the past reveals that her grandmother had a secret romance during World War II and how she came to die in another country, on another continent. I figured out what happened well before the end, so reading the rest of the book was a bit of a chore. I had high hopes when I requested this book on NetGalley. I really like stories about ordinary Germans during World War II, especially ones who become resisters. Unfortunately, it did not deliver. I think Hotel on Shadow Lake would have benefiting from a bit more editing to get rid of the clunky parts and weave the flashbacks, letters, and present sections more tightly together. And get rid of scenes that consist entirely of clichés.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.