This fortnight on the bookish internet

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

There’s a line in the movie Jurassic Park, spoken by Dr. Ian Malcom, that I will always remember: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t start to think if they should.” This line is the perfect summary for so many Faustian tales. It’s definitely true for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest amazing novel, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, inspired by another classic Faustian story The Island of Doctor Moreau. But where those stories focus on the Faust character and his moral dilemmas, Moreno-Garcia puts the emphasis squarely on the fallout of a scientist’s careless meddling with the natural order.

Jules Verne’s island, in this version, is a remote corner of the Yucatán peninsula. It is isolated by dense jungle and fears of Mayans rebelling against oppressive landowners. The only contact the eponymous daughter, Carlota Moreau, and her father and their companions have with the outside world are occasional visits from the man who funds Doctor Moreau’s hacienda and his research. We meet Carlota just before another visit from Señor Lizalde, who has arrived with a new assistant and another exhortation for Doctor Moreau to give him something he can actually use to recoup his investment. The new assistant, Montgomery (and our second narrator, after Carlota), was hired to keep an eye on the doctor as much as anything else.

Up until this point, if you didn’t know about The Island of Doctor Moreau, it would be easy to ignore the hints that something very strange is going on at the Moreau’s hacienda. There are hints that, apart from the Moreaus and their housekeeper, the other inhabitants are not entirely human. We only learn the truth from Montgomery’s reaction when he meets one of the sentient animal hybrids the doctor has created. It seems as though Doctor Moreau has been tinkering with genetics, although he never calls it that. His creations are not healthy. They’re in pain. They have short lives. All Doctor Moreau really cares about is perfecting his methods, so he doesn’t have much to do with the hybrids he’s created so far. Carlota does the caring for him.

Illustration from a 1904 Russian edition of The Island of Doctor Moreau (Image via Wikicommons)

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau bounces back and forth between Carlota and Montgomery narrating events. From Carlota, we find a deep love of others and the hacienda. She worries about everyone but is stymied by her father’s controlling ways; she can’t do much more than try to keep the show running while he works in his lab. On Montgomery’s side, we get a lot of confusion over what on earth is happening. He eventually settles in. He cares, too, but his prickly personality doesn’t let him show it. Through their eyes we see events start to escalate. Señor Lizalde wants his money and the hybrids, promised to him as workers by Moreau. His son, who turns up following rumors of Mayan revels, suddenly decides that he wants the beautiful Carlota. Before long, it’s impossible for anyone to hide away at the hacienda.

This summary isn’t capturing the sweltering, hypnotic atmosphere of The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. Carlota in particular is an amazing narrator. I loved spending time with her, even if she shares her father’s stubbornness and can be just as prickly as Montgomery at times. In addition to watching events through her eyes, we see Carlota grow up from a sheltered child to a fierce young woman. She struggles against her conditioning to obey, not make a fuss, and her sense of duty towards others. And the best part of watching her grow is seeing Carlota find hidden, possibly animal, depths.

I’m still not describing this fantastic book correctly. Go read it. Trust that Moreno-Garcia has delivered another brilliant, engrossing, psychologically deep, beautifully detailed story. This book is one of her best.

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

Death and the Conjuror, by Tom Mead

When a wealthy psychiatrist is murdered in his locked study, who do the detectives call when they’re stumped? In another series, they’d call Sherlock Holmes. In Tom Mead’s Death and the Conjuror, Detective George Flint calls Joseph Spector, a semi-retired magician, to help him figure out how the hell someone managed to brutally murder someone and escape from a locked room without anyone seeing or hearing anything. This quick read will be a delight for fans of fair-play mysteries who like to pick apart seemingly impossible cases.

Death and the Conjuror opens in Agatha Christie fashion by introducing us to all the players just before the crimes start to happen. We meet two actresses at a not-so-high-class London theatre who hate each other and get a glimpse of Spector as the curtain is about to go up on the theatre’s latest Gothic horror. In another part of London is an author of gruesome stories who seems to be losing a battle against his paranoia. In yet another part of London is the study of a very exclusive emigre psychiatrist (soon to be murder victim), who we meet as he is listening to one of his three patients talk about his haunting nightmares. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist’s daughter is preparing to go to the theatre with her rich, obnoxious fiance. By the next day, the psychiatrist is dead, a valuable painting is missing, and a whole lot of people are under investigation by Scotland Yard. Unfortunately, Scotland Yard—in the form of Detective Flint—is stumped. There’s no possible way for the murder to have occurred without something to point to the murderer, motive, and means.

I enjoyed every chapter of Death and the Conjuror: racing the detective and magician as they try to figure out what happened and whodunnit, evaluating the motives and characterizations of the various suspects, watching everyone race around either investigating or incriminating each other, and the brilliant reveal at the end. Everything in this book is perfect, especially the vibrant portraits of the very believable cast of characters. I could actually see this book playing out in my head. This book is a great way to, ahem, kill an afternoon.

This review is shorter than what I usually write but that’s only because I don’t want to ruin anything for any of you readers out there who want to pick it up. No hints or spoilers from me; you’ll have to read it to figure out what happened and why.

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

We Carry Their Bones, by Erin Kimmerle

Trigger warning for extreme child abuse and murder.

Before it closed in 2011, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, was the subject of repeated state investigations for abuse and unexplained deaths of the boys who were sentenced there. The correctional institution was a place where boys were dumped. Many of the inmates had been sentenced for criminal offenses, but some (especially children of color) could be sentenced for “vagrancy”—a “crime” that forensic anthropologist and author Erin Kimmerle notes was often used to snatch people (again, especially people of color) from around the state to lease out for prison labor. All of those investigations found evidence of extreme abuse and yet the school was remained open for 111 years, after dozens of children had died and thousands more suffered irreparable psychological and physical harm. We Carry Their Bones is Kimmerle’s attempt to document the crimes that took place at the Dozier School and her role in uncovering dozens of unmarked graves on the School’s land when the University of South Florida finally got permission to conduct a forensic investigation in 2012.

We Carry Their Bones is the second book I’ve read that was based, at least in part, on events at the Dozier School. In 2020, I read Colson Whitehead’s gutting novel, The Nickel Boys. That novel is part of the reason I wanted to read We Carry Their Bones. I wanted to know more about the history behind Whitehead’s book. That history is very grim indeed. The Florida School for Boys—later renamed the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—was founded in 1900 as a place for minor boys to be sentenced by the court system. The institution was segregated. When investigators recommended reforms (when they weren’t asking for the whole school to be shut down), the few reforms that were enacted were usually only implemented on the white side of the school. For example, one of the early investigations required that the school install fire escapes on the dormitories, they were only added to the white ones. Only years later were fire escapes added to all the dormitories. A fire destroyed one of the white dormitories in 1914. At least seven people died in that fire. It would have been worse if not for the two fire escapes–although Kimmerle points out that the doors to those fire escapes were locked and chained. Guards and children had to break the locks to get out.

Almost 100 years later, Kimmerle and her team from the University of South Florida found those seven bodies, co-minged in a confusing number of coffins, in unmarked graves on the school grounds. School and legal records (those that could be found) recorded 31 burials on the school grounds. Between 2011 and 2012, fifty-five graves had been found. The initial USF investigation used ground-penetrating radar and a technique called ground-truthing to find the graves in the graveyard. Ground-truthing is the removal of a shallow layer of soil to see if anomalies detected by the radar were burial sites. Kimmerle and her team didn’t have permission to dig deeper to confirm burials or exhume bodies. They, relatives of children who died at Dozier, and former inmates had to go to court repeatedly to get official permission to exhume bodies, identify those they could, and rebury them. Kimmerle frequently shares her memories of conversations with grieving family members and former inmates. Even decades later, the grief and fear and sorrow and anger are fresh. The former inmates, notably the White Hosue Boys (who took their name from the building on campus where the worst beatings were meted out), and family members never stopped asking questions about what happened at Dozier.

I appreciated several things about We Carry Their Bones: Kimmerle’s persistence in getting at least some justice for the children, the former inmates, and the relatives; her forensic expertise; and her efforts to put the crimes of the Dozier school into historical context. That said, I struggled to get through the brief book. We Carry Their Bones is disorganized and repetitive. Events aren’t arranged chronologically or thematically. Some events are told more than once, in similar language. A lot of the school’s history itself is glossed over. I can understand that people who worked at the school would be very unwilling to talk to Kimmerle, but it’s hard to conceive of how the Dozier School was open for so long, almost entirely unchanged in spite of the investigations, without more information. On that score, Kimmerle does touch upon why the residents of Marianna—who for decades staffed the school and were financially supported by it—would have such a hard time a) admitting the crimes that happened at the school and b) accepting that the school’s secrets must come to light. A lot of white Americans resist the fact that their ancestors did terrible things. A lot of the people who fight Kimmerle and other’s efforts were very much alive when those crimes occurred. If they knew, they were complicit. If they didn’t know, they knew people who were involved, either in the brutality itself or the efforts to cover it up.

In sum, although there are some very good parts of We Carry Their Bones and although this is an important story that must be told, I think this book could have used more time with the editors to cut the repetitive elements; suggest areas to add additional, relevant material; and re-organize the overall structure.

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

This week on the bookish internet

Mercury Pictures Presents, by Anthony Marra

I’ve come to expect great things of Anthony Marra, after being absolutely blown away by his debut A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno. Mercury Pictures Presents has some of the same elements as those other books—meticulously recreated historical setting, characters who are called on to sacrifice themselves to save others, epic plots—it has something I haven’t seen before. This book has an acid sense of humor. So many character descriptions and bits of dialogue had me chortling despite the dangers faced by the book’s cast of characters. I hope Marra starts to get more critical and bookish attention; he is a treasure.

Mercury Pictures Presents is all about facades: emotional, physical, and documentary. Every one of the major characters (and nearly all of the minor ones) presents a front to the world that hides their fears, sorrows, regrets, and anger. We, the readers, are among the few who get to see behind the facades to understand what’s really going on. The narrative takes us from pre-World War II Italy to wartime Los Angeles to the end of the war. The first protagonist we meet, Maria Lagana, is a young girl who hasn’t learned to be wary of the world. In an effort to protect her communist father, she attempts to burn drafts of legal documents he’s written to try and free people who’ve been caught on the wrong side of Mussolini‘s regime. She is caught before she can finish but her father pays the price. Once the authorities learn what’s in those papers, Giuseppe Lagana is sent into internal exile, from Rome to rural Calabria. This sharp, brutal lesson in the necessity of keeping secrets shapes Maria for the rest of her life, even after she emigrates to the United States with her mother.

Adult Maria gets a job at the struggling Mercury Pictures. Mercury used to be great but they’re fighting a losing battle against Hays Code censors and the major studios. They’re barely hanging on to B-grade status. Maria excels at marketing and sneaking things past the censor. That said, she wants more. She wants to be a producer. She wants to have a better relationship with her mother. She wants her Chinese American boyfriend to have better roles than the awful typecast characters that are the only thing on offer for actors of Asian descent. She wants to know if her father, who she hasn’t seen in over a decade, is alive or dead.

The rest of the cast in this book are all connected to Maria in some way and they are also all struggling between keeping up appearances and their own dreams. Her boss, Artie, is always trying to return Mercury to its glory days. We see his latest attempt: turning the studio into a propaganda machine to earn money from the War Department. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance from Italy has to hide under an assumed name and dodge restrictions on enemy aliens to try and become a great photographer. A hapless (and hilarious) detective in fascist Italy scrambles to protect people from his own government. Maria’s boyfriend Eddie Lu begins to loathe himself for sacrificing his integrity in order to get work. All of these plots and subplots are beautifully executed. Marra is a master of psychologically rich character development.

This summary doesn’t come close to accurately conveying the scope and depth of Mercury Pictures Presents. I hope something here sparks your interest because, as I mentioned above, I don’t think Marra is getting nearly the attention he deserves for his incredible, emotionally wrenching, and highly entertaining novels.

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

Winter Work, by Dan Fesperman

The eleven months between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the reunification of Germany in October 1990 must have been a strange time. Strange is probably an understatement. For decades, Berlin had been one of the foci of the Cold War. It was a place where East Germans had tried to escape to the West. Spies and police from both the West and the Soviet sphere of influence battled covertly throughout the divided city. But then, the wall came down and everything changed. There was suddenly space to speak freely and renegotiate old alliances. Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work takes place in that space, among people who were used to following the old rules but now find themselves scrambling for safe harbor before someone decides that they know too much.

Winter Work centers on two characters. Emil Grimm is a former high-ranking officer of the Stasi, a feared organization that recruited an estimated 16% of the East German population as informants (figure given by one of the characters in the book). Our other protagonist, Claire Saylor, works for the CIA. Under the old rules, the two would be enemies. With the wall down and secrets going at a premium, there’s a chance that Emil and Claire could become allies.

The novel opens with a disturbing interruption to Emil’s daily walk. Not far from his house in the exclusive woods north of Berlin, Emil finds a group of special police investigating the scene of an apparent suicide. The dead man is Emil’s old comrade from the Stasi, Lothar. Because the man in charge of the special police on the scene is an old semi-enemy of Emil’s, Emil has to watch his words carefully when he talks to Krauss. For example, he refrains from pointing out to Krauss that the gun is being held in his Lothar’s off-hand. Emil only really managed to get out of the uncomfortable situation when a detective with the Volkspolzei turns up to officially investigate the death. (Krauss’s people only do unofficial investigations. Mostly they make things disappear). Meanwhile, Claire is trying to find a way to get back out into the field, after being roped into a CIA operation that amounts to cold-calling everyone in their East German Rolodex in order to buy secrets. When her boss offers her a chance to meet with someone who says he has something to sell, Claire leaps at the chance.

We learn that Emil and Lothar were planning to sell some of the secrets they’ve collected from the Stasi, in exchange for money and a safe place in the West. With Lothar dead, Emil has to take the lead, even though he’s always worked desk jobs for the Stasi. He uses everything he remembers from training field agents to sneak around the upheaval in Berlin after stepping into Lothar’s shoes. First, he attempts to meet with the CIA agent (Claire) Lother arranged to meet, only for that meeting to go bad when Soviet thugs blunder in with threats of violence.

All of this happens in the first chapters of Winter Work and things never really slow down as Emil and Claire try to work their schemes. The only places where the plot slows down (as if for a breather) offer backstory for the protagonists. We learn about Emil’s wife, who has ALS, and the more-than-friend who takes care of both of them. We learn about Claire’s frustrations with superior officers who won’t let her follow her own initiative. And on top of the main plot and the backstory, we get plenty of lessons in the free-for-all fighting between the CIA, the Soviets (who don’t seem to realize that their regime is going to fall pretty soon), and East Germans over scraps of information. Oh, and real-life super-spy Markus Wolf has a not-insignificant role in this book. It’s a lot.

Winter Work is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Although the plot races along, character development is never sacrificed. The stakes remain high and Fesperman does outstanding work at recreating the tense and wild atmosphere of Berlin during the winter of 1989-1990. I highly recommend this book to fans of the genre who like their thrillers based in real history.

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

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, c. 1963 (Image via Wikicommons)

This week on the bookish internet

The Blunder, by Mutt-Lon

Trigger warning for frequent use of racist language.

Before doctors understood the causes of and developed reliable treatments for the disease, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) outbreaks could kill hundreds of thousands of people. Because the disease is caused by parasites in the tsetse fly, efforts to control and hopefully eradicate the disease involve controlling the population of the fly and treating patients as soon as possible. The course of dealing with sleeping sickness hasn’t run as smoothly as my quick background might make it sound. Mutt-Lon’s satirical novella, The Blunder, takes its inspiration from an actual historical incident. Mutt-Lon uses the real blunder and its aftermath to shine a light on colonial racism and paternalism and tribal conflict.

Damienne Bourdin is not a star in the medical field when she is dispatched to French Cameroon in 1929 to take on a personal mission for the head of Cameroon’s sleeping sickness eradication efforts, Eugène Jamot. Jamot explains that one of the doctors in his program has made a big, big mistake in calculating doses of tryparsamide and atoxyl. At the correct dosage, these drugs can treat sleeping sickness. At too high a dosage, it causes irreparable blindness due to the arsenic in the medicines. Hundreds of people were left blind. This mistake destroyed a lot of the confidence Cameroonians had in western medicine and the French government, to the point that a war might break out against the French. Damienne’s mission is to go into the interior to find the daughter of one of the most powerful Cameroonian chiefs. Edoa trained as a nurse and was caught in the violence. If Damienne can bring her back, the chief promises to use his influence to head off a bigger conflict. To keep things quiet, Damienne goes into the interior with only two guides: an official from the powerful chief’s government and a man named Ndongo, who is always described as a pygmy without reference to his tribe.

A savvier protagonist would have more questions about Jamot’s hair-brained quest. I certainly did. Jamot might be a genius when it comes to infectious disease but he clearly knows nothing about espionage or diplomacy. Almost as soon as Damienne leaves Yaoundé things start to go wrong. Damienne’s journey introduces her to angry Cameroonians, buffoonish colonial officers, and medical officers caught in the middle just trying to keep people alive. Her own prejudices toward the Cameroonians don’t help either. There are many cringe-worthy moments when Damienne is astonished to learn that Cameroonians are intelligent people who don’t need any Europeans to tell them what to do.

Amy B. Reid, the faithful translator, describes The Blunder as a hilarious lampooning of French Cameroon at the end of the 1920s. Hilarious is not the adjective I would use. It didn’t make me laugh. More than anything else, it made me angry. It’s possible that I’m missing things that would be funny if I was able to read the book in the original French. It’s also possible that I’m missing a lot of cultural and historical context. That said, not making me laugh is not a reason not to read this book. Don’t go looking for humor here. Instead, pay attention to the very pointed satire of the chaotic situations Damienne finds herself in and to the oblivious racism of the Europeans. Mutt-Lon’s verbal barbs strike deep.

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

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

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