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.

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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.

The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell

35458733It’s not a delusion if someone else sees something strange, right? This is what I told myself as I read Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions. This is also what the protagonist, widow Elsie Bainbridge, tells herself when she hears unexplained noises, sees doors lock and unlock, and finds the “silent companion” statues all over the house she inherited from her husband after his sudden death. Even at the end of the book, I had questions about what was real and what wasn’t.

The Silent Companions takes place in three different times at The Bridge, the ancestral home of the Bainbridge family. In 1866, a badly burned woman is treated by a new doctor. This doctor thinks the woman might be innocent of arson and murder, as everyone else thinks. This woman, a year before, is the widowed Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge. She’s pregnant and suddenly in charge of running a country home. And in 1635, Anne Bainbridge grows increasingly worried about her daughter—a child she believes she conceived through magic.

The Bridge is an unsettling place, especially once Elsie orders the garret reopened. She and her companion find a painted statue of a girl that they decide to place in the house’s entrance hall. After that, nothing goes right. More and more of the statues, called the companions, appear all over the house. Elsie would worry more about her sanity if her hired companion, Sarah, didn’t also see and hear the same things she does. Like Anne’s increasing alarm about her uncanny child, everything that happens to Elsie seems believable because they’re not the only one having those thoughts or experiencing the weirdness. At the end of The Silent Companions, we’re asked to weigh in on what really happened to Elsie. Is she insane? Is The Bridge actually haunted?

I was a little disappointed in how the 1635 plot and the 1860s plots were integrated in The Silent Companions. The 1635 plot is used in the 1860s plots, but not as much as I would have liked. The timelines don’t really hang together most of the time. This was really my only problem with the book. I enjoyed the rest of it. It was fascinating to follow two women down the road to what might (or might not) be insanity.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

The Philosopher’s Flight, by Tom Miller

32620364Robert Weekes has a dream: to be the first man to join the US Sigil Corps Rescue and Evacuation Team. But in this alternate version of history, women have dominated sigil work for more than 100 years. In fact, no one believes that men are physically capable of doing the work. The prologue of The Philosopher’s Flight, by Tom Miller, lets us know that he somehow achieves something like his dream. We just don’t know how he does it. If this sounds like it gives things away to soon, there are enough questions about what will happen to provide narrative tension. Plus, Miller creates a wonderful world full of details about the “don’t call it magic” system that fuels this alternate history to make things that much more interesting.

Robert works as his mother’s assistant in Montana in the fall of 1918, when the book proper opens. He wants to do more than just assist the county philosopher, but no one is willing to give him the chance. He’s a man and, in this world, men just aren’t strong enough to do the job—women can fly faster and longer, their sigils are more powerful, and tradition is on their side. When his mother is injured in the line of duty and she finally gets the support from the state she needs to administer her county, Robert uses the opportunity to enroll in one of the few colleges that will accept male students to study sigils. He pays for it by signing up under the Contingency Act, which will pay his tuition in exchange for military service. His family is not thrilled, not with World War I raging on the other side of the Atlantic, but Robert wants to get out there and save lives if the women in charge will let him.

The Philosopher’s Flight covers Robert’s first year at Radcliffe College in Boston, his ups and downs (literal and figurative), and his struggle to get into the Rescue and Evacuation Unit. To make things even more interesting, the novel also sets up a bloody conflict between the sigilwomen and the men who want to strip them of their power and outlaw sigilry. This book is very blunt about its point of view on gender relations and Robert, as a man raised by strong women, is an interesting example of what might happen if the two genders could lay down arms and work together.

I hope Miller writes a sequel (or two) to The Philosopher’s Flight. The story and its world are so fully realized, as well as entertaining, that I want more.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 February 2018.

Dreams and Reason, by Juliet Valcourt

37655189Dreams and Reason, by Juliet Valcourtis a bewildering book. A lot of the book feels like the inverse of a Jane Austen novel, but there are also supernatural elements that further complicate the already tangled relationships in this book. While we do get interesting stories about two girls who receive a crash course in the downsides of love, I think the book should have either gone more supernatural or dropped that element entirely and embraced its take on the Regency comedy of manners.

Caroline Fyfe has always loved Tom Daley. Consequently, she is devastated when he comes back to town with a new wife. Tom regrets his hasty marriage and continues to pursue Caroline, even though the morals of 1830s rural England are strictly against it. Caroline tries to resist, but her love for Tom leads her to live with him after his wife leaves and Caroline turns up pregnant. Life gets worse and worse for Caroline until two devastating events give her a chance to start over. Given the many allusions to Austen, reading about Caroline and Tom’s relationship feels a bit like spying on Lydia and Mr. Wickham after their marriage.

This is enough for a novel but, for some reason, supernatural characters and events are shoehorned into story. These elements are almost completely gone by the end of the book, leaving me to question why they were even there in the first place. I was kind of enjoying those and leaving them undeveloped was a let down. I also had issues with the way Dreams and Reason was written. Until I was told that this book was set in 1830s England, I had no idea where or when I was. I suspect that this time and place was picked because that’s when Austen wrote and because the fairy plot worked a little better then and there. Further, this book is written mostly in wincingly anachronistic dialogue and features weirdly forgiving secondary characters who look past all of Caroline and Tom’s adulterous shenanigans. I finished it, but Dreams and Reason read like a rough draft to me, not a finished novel.

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

Creatures of Will and Temper, by Molly Tanzer

33503519Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Will and Temper is one of the slowest burning novels I can remember reading. At first I wasn’t sure if the long set up was entirely necessary—in fact, I thought I was misremembering the reviews I’d read of the book because nothing that I’d expected happened until much later. My patience was rewarded. The ending of this book is not only exciting to read, it also takes all of that background to create a very meaningful story about two needful sisters who dive into the seductions presented to them when they visit London without entirely considering the costs of getting what they think they want.

Evadne and Dorina are the most disparate sisters one could imagine. Evadne is reserved, proper, and very protective of her younger sister. Unfortunately, Dorina doesn’t appreciate that protectiveness. She is much more worldly than Evadne and she’s also a lot more willing to embrace her sexuality and joie de vivre. When they are dispatched to London—Dorina to learn more about art so that she can become an art critic and Evadne to keep an eye on her—they continue their pattern of sisterly antagonism. That antagonism ratchets up after Dorina meets and falls for Lady Henry Wotton. Evadne is powerless to stop her sister from making what she feels is a scandalous mistake. Dorina, meanwhile, is having the time of her life. The only thing that makes life bearable for Evadne is joining a fencing club and sparring with a great teacher, George Cantrell.

The first half of the book gives us a deep look into the sisters’ psychology. Even though they are very different, I felt for both of them. Evadne’s disappointment in love and her sensitivity to teasing made my heart ache for her. Meanwhile, Dorina wants Lady Henry’s love and a slice of the woman’s life of aesthetic pleasure. For all their differences, they both suffer the agonies of unrequited love.

I was starting to think that this is what Creatures of Will and Temper was going to be, despite the tantalizing hints of something supernatural going on in the background. But then, the twists started coming. Dorina and Evadne are introduced to the secret doings of humans and demons and the stakes rise astronomically. Because we know so much about the sister, I think the last half of the book meant more than it might have if we’d been dropped into the diabolical deep end at the beginning. We know how hard is for the sisters to overcome their emotional struggles and how much their mettle is tested.

I loved the last half of Creatures of Will and Temper. It made the first half worth reading. I marveled at the twists, betrayals, and reversals packed into the last half. There was so much going on and it was so well done that I couldn’t put the book down last night until I’d finished it. I had to know what happened to Evadne and Dornia; I had to know if they got their richly deserved happy endings.


Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to squabbling siblings.

Eternal Life, by Dara Horn

35667296What is a human life worth? For a mother like Rachel, the protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, the life of her son is worth everything she can give. But, in her rush to save her son, Rachel neglects to read the fine print when she gives up her death so that her son will survive a terrible illness. Ever since that day two thousand years ago, Rachel has been wandering the earth raising family after family, wondering if it was really worth it.

The first hints that not all is right with Rachel come when she refers to her very many sons and daughters, more than a woman could ever have in one lifetime. Then there are all the languages she knows and occupations she’s held over the centuries. Above all else, there’s her deep fatigue and questions about what she’s really living for. For Rachel, death would be a chance to rest once and for all.

We meet Rachel as she’s coming to the realization that the time has come for her to do her disappearing act. As far as her children and grandchildren are aware, she’s in her eighties. She looks decades younger though, and the fact that she’s not about to shuffle off her mortal coil any time soon is about to become awkward. In the past, it was easier to start over somewhere else. Now it requires so much documentation to set up a life that it’s almost impossible to help. The only other person with Rachel’s predicament, Elazar, offers to help, but she still hasn’t forgiven him for the time Elazar got her first husband killed.

Eternal Life moves back and forth between the present and Rachel and Elazar’s first life in Jerusalem a few decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. Horn has a gift for bringing that time and place back to life, though that is partially due to Rachel’s vibrance as a character. I honestly wish this book had been longer, because not only does it only touch on Jewish history, but it also asks interesting questions about whether there should be limits to what parents do for their children. Rachel might make the same choice again, but is it worth creating and leaving family after family to save the life of one mortal child? Thankfully, we learn Rachel’s answer in the end…but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what it is because I’m not going to give it away here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 23 January 2018.

The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer

34103858When I was young enough that my mother still made me go to church, I was taught the Lutheran version of salvation. I prefer to say it in Latin—sola fides sufficitmostly because I’m a word nerd and because I like to sound smart. The idea of sola fide (“faith alone”) is a Reformation idea that believers will go to heaven simply because they have faith. Their faith would presumably lead them to do good works and generally be good people. This is different from the medieval Catholic doctrine that it was faith and good works that would get a believer into heaven. This issue of salvation is at the heart of Ian Mortimer’s slightly preachy novel, The Outcasts of Time.

John of Wrayment wants to be a good man and wants to get into heaven, but almost all of his attempts to do good go terribly awry. In other circumstances, John might have had a lifetime to try to do and be good. Unfortunately, John is alive in 1348, when the Bubonic Plague arrived in England. People are dying left and right. Trying to nurse people would be almost certainly fatal and yet, one day, John talks his brother into helping an infant that they found with its plague-dead parents. This good act ends up infecting them and others with the plague. The Outcasts of Time would have been a very short book if John hadn’t had a little bit of supernatural intervention at this point. A voice that might either be heavenly or infernal offers him and his brother the options of living out the last six days of their life with their families (and infecting them with the plague) or living each of those days at 99-year intervals. John takes the chance because he thinks he might have new opportunities to do good. His brother goes along, reluctantly, to stay with his naïve younger brother.

John and William then jump, every morning, from 1348 to 1447, 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843, and 1942. John’s bad luck apparently comes with him because his attempted good works keep going wrong. These attempts keep the plot going, but they were slightly less interesting to me than the conversations John would have with the descendants of people he knew in the Moreton (later Moretonhampstead) area about fate, good works, futility, human nature, faith, and other topics. Ideas of salvation change with England’s history, especially after the Protestant Reformation hits. The evolution of religion (ha!) deeply troubles John and he’s more than willing to argue about the superiority of his original faith for several of his last days—at least until the weight of history starts to press down on him and make him wonder about the difference between what he was taught and what he witnesses.

The Outcasts of Time has a facile ending that I didn’t like. But the ending, not to say too much about it, does provide a sense of hope that does a lot to relieve the sense of hopelessness that pervades the book as John often makes things worse rather than better. The Outcasts of Time wears its message boldly on its sleeve. Readers who want more subtlety will probably want to avoid this. Readers who like books that give them food for thought about fate or the idea that humans either improve or fail to improve over time, however, will enjoy The Outcasts of Time. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

 

Brimstone, by Cherie Priest

30213129Until very recently, there wasn’t any treatment for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. There wasn’t even a good name for it either. But modern psychology and medicine would have a hard time treating what ails Cuban American World War I veteran Tomás Cordero in Cherie Priest’s Brimstone. Fortunately for him, novice medium and clairvoyant Alice Dartle does.

On her train to Cassadaga, Florida, Alice shares a dream with Tomás about fire and the trenches. Neither of them knows what it means but they are both left with the sense that they’re not alone. In alternating chapters, we watch Alice settle (sort of) into her lessons in Cassadaga’s spiritualist community and Tomás struggle with unexplained fires that cause enormous damage. Alice’s natural feistiness and willingness to go in over her head are a bit much for the surprisingly staid spiritualists. Tomás is bewildered and saddened at the same time as everything seems to burn around him.

Readers with a bit of knowledge about the history of witchcraft will figure out what’s going on in Brimstone fairly early. Still, interesting to watch things unspool here even if you do twig early, because the characters are wonderfully drawn. Alice is spunky and sweet. She would be a terrific friend to have. Tomás is the kind of wounded man that makes people want to help him. He feels deeply and makes friends for life. Every character, even the minor ones, feel utterly real.

Brimstone is, the way I read it, an unusual but strong metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. Veterans of World War I were piled into trenches, faced horrific weapons, and were subjected to all sorts of propaganda about who they were fighting and what they were fighting for. The experience was toxic to everyone who fought and its no surprise that things would follow the soldiers home. Brimstone makes those things more tangible and thus something that can be defeated. In a not-fantasy genre novel, Tomás would have been dealing with memories and psychological triggers, probably for the rest of his life. In Brimstone, however, we all get a satisfying conclusion.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

34050917Vasilisa Petrovna’s adventures continue in The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale. Without her family to shield her from the hostile villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya, she lights out for the territories on her trusty, magical horse to become a traveler. But because a) Russian fairy tales tend to be as bloodthirsty or more than Grimms’ and b) fourteenth century Russia is no picnic anyway, Vasilisa is almost immediately in peril.

In fourteenth century Russia, women have few options. It’s either marriage or a convent. And, for high ranking women, marriage came with lifelong seclusion in terem. All Vasilisa wants is to see the world. Though her protector, Morozko (the snow-king) tries to dissuade her, Vasilisa takes to the road. Meanwhile, we also check in with Vasilisa’s older sister, Olga, in Moscow, and her warrior-monk brother, Sasha. As Vasilisa is making her way, disguised as a boy, Olga is trying to maintain order in her haunted tower and Sasha is dealing with the fallout of a series of violent attacks on villages around Moscow by bandits who don’t leave tracks.

It doesn’t take long for the siblings’ stories to intersect and for Vasilisa to realize that she’s up against something supernatural. Again. I don’t want to say too much because if I start talking about what happens, anyone who knows a bit about Russian folklore might be able to figure things out too soon. But I will say that I love the way Vasilisa and her family are caught between the native spirits of Russia who are still hanging on in the banyas and hearths of the country and the new Orthodox faith that dismisses the bannik and domovoi as devils. A few centuries before, Vasilisa might not have had to deal with everything alone or been accused of witchcraft. Half (or more) of Vasilisa’s fight is just trying to get people to at least allow her get on with things.

I remember liking The Bear and the Nightingale a lot, but I think I might have enjoyed this entry in the series even more. The stakes have been raised in The Girl in the Tower. The story has widened to bring in even more figures from Russian folklore. But most of all, I love who Vasilisa is becoming. She is learning that she is mostly on her own and she grows increasingly capable with every new challenge. She also has a gift for pushing her family and allies to be better people, to become heroes. There’s so much in The Girl in the Tower that I loved. I strongly recommend these books for fans of folklore and folklore retellings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 December 2017.