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.

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.

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.

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø

33952851If I’ve learned nothing else from listening to Last Podcast on the Lasts episodes about Jonestown, it’s that one should always head for the hills once the leader starts taking amphetamines. When I pair that with a lesson I learned from Shakespeare—that one should run from anyone with this particular name—I know that Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth is going to be a furious bloodbath with few survivors, directed by two people who are out of their heads with power and guilt.

In Nesbø’s version of Shakespeare’s play, another retelling in Hogarth’s series, the action plays out in an unnamed setting that I think is a version of Glasgow in the 1970s. Here, Macbeth is the head of the city’s SWAT team. Duff is an Inspector with Organized Crime. Duncan has just become chief commissioner. In the background, the head of a drug manufacturing and selling syndicate named Hecate starts to pull strings. Macbeth and Duff are visited after a raid (that Duff screwed up and Macbeth rescued) by three of Hecate’s minions, who tell the men that Macbeth will be promoted to Head of Organized Crime and, later, chief commissioner.

Lady Macbeth goes off the rails, by Johann Heinrich Füssli
(Image via Wikicommons)

This “prophecy” kicks of a series of murders, murders to cover up those murders, and yet more murders to cover up the cover-up murders. Readers of Nesbø and Shakespeare should find it all pretty familiar. My big problem with the book was that I didn’t buy some of the early leaps of logic made by Lady, Macbeth’s lover and partner. Once she learns about Hecate’s prophecy, she almost immediately goes off the rails. She plays on Macbeth’s insecurity about his lower class origins and past traumas to get him to kill Duncan. If he can take over, she tells him, he can make the city better for everyone. So he starts killing. And, as in Shakespeare’s play, everything starts to go to hell right rapidly.

I don’t know if enjoy is the right word for how I feel about this retelling of Macbeth. It’s faithful to the original plot. Lady and Macbeth are appropriately tortured. I rather liked how Duff’s character was developed. But since this book can be summed up as murder after murder until most of the characters are dead, I feel like it lacks some of the emotional depth of Shakespeare’s version. I knew that anything written by Nesbø would be gory; I’m not surprised by that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the other books in the Hogarth series, which do take the opportunity to take on problems in the original Shakespeare or put a new spin on things. This Macbeth is more like the story was lifted and dropped into a different setting and with the great speeches trimmed away.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2018.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon

36347504After Lulu’s mother goes missing at the start of The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, nothing goes right for her or her siblings. Only Lulu Parsons knows that her mother wasn’t kidnapped or murdered. She knows that her mother couldn’t bear to live in poverty in a small town in British Columbia. She never tells anyone else and, while everyone else searches for Mrs. Parsons and hopes she will come back, all the Parsons children seems to lose their way. This novel tracks Lulu’s story and the story of Doris, a mute woman who sells eggs, moving back and forth in time from the early 1960s to the 1980s.

We meet Lulu on a very bad day. She is meeting her brother, who has been clean for a few months and is expecting a child with his latest girlfriend. He talks her into taking a ride on his motorcycle, but when she jerks at the wrong moment, they crash. Trevor is killed. Lulu’s mistake at this moment is like other mistakes she’s made in her past, which we get to see as a kind of cruel parade of events. Lulu never meant to do wrong. She just jerked at the wrong time and things went awry.

While the Parsons’ family drama takes up the most space in The Very Marrow of Our Bones, I was far more interested in Doris, the silent egg-seller. Both Doris and Lulu are molested by Mr. McFee, a creepy man with a knack for talking girls into things they shouldn’t do. Doris can laugh and, once, scream, but she doesn’t speak. And so people tell her things. She knows a lot more about what’s going on in little Fraser Arm—though she doesn’t know what really happened to Mrs. Parsons and Mrs. McFee, the other woman who went missing the day Mrs. Parsons ran away. I would happily have read a book just about Doris and her slow romance with the man who brought her books, her wild garden, and her quirky observations about everyone and everything.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones is an overstuffed novel, though I enjoyed the characters’ rich development. I think if this book had been about either Lulu or Doris, it would have been a lot better. I know that presenting us with both characters means we should compare them, to see how differently someone can respond to tragedy and trauma. But I think this comparison is unnecessary. In fact, I think it reduces two fully realized women into object lessons.

Aside from my issues with the inevitable comparison between the two female protagonists and the fact that there is so much packed into this story, I found The Very Marrow of Our Bones a fascinating look inside a very dysfunctional community and family. This book is perfect for readers who like drama stacked on top of drama in their fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

29983711In each generation of the family at the center of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, individuals must decide if they are going to try to fight others’ expectations or become what people expect them to be. In other hands, this book might be about the triumph of individualism and determination. This novel, however, takes a harder look about how difficult it really is to break loose from parental expectations, cultural strictures, and racism. I found it incredibly moving because of its emotional honesty, but an abrupt ending makes me reluctant to want to recommend the book to other readers or even give it an unequivocal stamp of approval. Seriously, the book just ends. I suddenly found myself in the acknowledgements because I thought there had to be more pages to the story.

Pachinko opens around the turn of the twentieth century, introducing us to the parents of one of the main characters. At times, the novel reads like a family history; it was only missing the documentation. Things start to slow down in the 1920s, when Sunja (whose parents we just met) comes onto the stage. Sunja’s family runs a boarding house on Yeongdo in what is now South Korea. They’re poor but managing. They might have carried on with the boarding house if it weren’t for Koh Hansu and, later, Baek Isak. Hansu seduces Sunja. He likes her innocence, but not in an icky, Lolita way. Rather, he is used to women who make their living as mistresses or hostesses, who ask for money and gifts in exchange for companionship and sex. When Sunja becomes pregnant and learns that Hansu is married, she surprises him by breaking up with him. An unwed pregnant woman is shocking to the morality of her village, but she refuses to take the easy route offered by Hansu. Instead, she marries a kind-hearted pastor (Isak) who learns about her situation and wants to save her from social ruin.

The rest of the novel follows Sunja’s family for the next sixty-plus years. We watch them migrate to Osaka, where they face implacable racism from the Japanese. We see them weather the Second World War. After that catastrophe, we witness Sunja’s sons rise in the pachinko industry and even become rich. Each generation’s struggle is to try and better themselves, either through education or money, to leave behind the stigma of being Korean in Japan. But no matter how hard they try, none of the family is able to succeed when they try to break out of what other people expect them to be. For example, Sunja’s son, Mozasu, becomes rich at pachinko only because it’s considered a job for crooks—which is what some Japanese people expect Koreans to be. Mozasu’s brother, who ironically also works in pachinko, fights hard against being seen as just another Korean in Japan, with tragic results.

What I liked most about Pachinko (apart from the setting) was the determination of the female characters. Sunja, in particular, bucks tradition, suffers for it, and yet keeps going. I found her deeply admirable. In comparison to the men in this novel, the women seem to be able to get their way through stubbornness. When one way is barred to them, they find another. They are never as successful as the men, but they don’t fall as far when circumstances turn against them as they invariable do for the men. Their lives are hard, full of pain and sorrow, but their determination means that they make permanent, though small, steps up the ladder to success.

If they can look past the stunningly abrupt ending, I think readers who like sinking into the lives of family members through the generations and/or are very interested in the Korean experience will enjoy Pachinko. Personally, the ending soured the whole experience for me. I feel cheated out of a resolution.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

36481157It’s such a lovely feeling to finish a mystery novel after the realization that the author not only fooled me once about what really happened in the book, but twice! Masako Togawa’s The Master Key, translated by Simon Grove, is a terrific and unusual mystery set in the K Apartments for Ladies, in Tokyo, in the late 1950s. The usual part of the novel is that it follows the travels of the apartment’s master key around the building as it is stolen and returned by various inhabitants. As the key changes hands, we enter the perspectives of those woman who take it upon themselves to spy on each other and investigate each other’s crimes.

The first crime to take place at the K Apartments is the death and burial of a child underneath the building. One of the people responsible becomes a recluse, while the other is killed in a car accident. Then, years later, we are given three clues about what might have happened through a series of short chapters in which we also learn a lot about the women of the Apartments. I’m trying not to reveal too much about The Master Key, because the plots are so much fun to read and take apart one’s self.

There were times when I go so interested in the other women in the Apartments that I lost sight of the original crime. By the time this short book is over, we learn about a kidnapping, a stolen Guarneri violin, an arson, a cult, and more murder-y shenanigans. For a building full of middle-aged and elderly women of limited means, they sure get up to a lot. Of course, they all have a lot of time on their hands. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that a five floor building of single women would contain so many secrets.

The Master Key is another novel rescued from obscurity (at least obscure to English speakers, I don’t know how popular this book was in Japan) by Pushkin Vertigo. It was originally published in the early 1960s. I’m so glad they’ve rereleased it. It’s complex, brilliant, and very, very sly. I enjoyed every page.

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

Bury What We Cannot Take, by Kirstin Chen

35433674There are some decisions that one should not overthink. Then there others that absolutely require long deliberation. Ong Seok Koon’s mistake at the beginning of Bury What We Cannot Take, by Kirstin Chen, is that she makes a very important decision without any thought at all. She and her family pay for that mistake for months. It’s only through the sheerest luck that they manage to survive that one bad decision.

Though they don’t know it, 1957 is a year for getting out of mainland China. The Ong family of Drum Wave Islet in Fujian are still fairly well off, thanks to the family’s factories. But 1957 is the beginning of what will become the Anti-Rightist Campaign and impulsive acts like Ong Bee Kim’s smashing of a portrait of Chairman Mao could condemn the entire family. Just after Bee Kim smashes the portrait and her grandson denounces her in an application to the Youth League, Seok Koon puts her plan to get the family to Hong Kong into action. She pulls every string she can reach, but only manages to secure exit papers for herself, her mother-in-law, and one of her children. When pressed to choose which child to take to Hong Kong, she blurts out the first name to pop into her head: her son’s name. Her daughter, San San, is left behind.

The rest of the book follows San San’s efforts to not get caught by Party officials in Fujian; Seok Koon’s increasingly frantic efforts to get her daughter back; her son, Ah Liam’s, stubborn clinging to Party thought and hoping to return to the mainland; and her husband’s efforts to support Seok Koon’s quest as well as his mistress while his business fails. Because the book is mostly told in dialogue, there isn’t as much character development as I would have liked. This is definitely not another Sophie’s Choice in spite of the superficial similarities. The lack of exposition also meant that I didn’t think the setting was given enough attention.

What bothered me most about Bury What We Cannot Take was its miraculous ending. Perhaps I’m not used to books set in China anywhere between 1911 and, say, 1980, that have happy endings. I just couldn’t believe that everything would work out as well as it did in this novel. Between the ending and lack of character development, I found Bury What We Cannot Take unsatisfying, even though it was interesting to read. That said, I might recommend it to someone who wants to broaden their reading horizons, but still wants a happy ending.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 March 2018.

Gods of Howl Mountain, by Taylor Brown

34964885In the mountains of North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century, there aren’t a lot of options for making money. For the women, it’s the mills or prostitution. Or, in the case of Granny May, prostitution and then backwoods healing. For the men, it’s the mills of whiskey. Granny May’s grandson, Rory, became a whiskey runner after he lost his leg in Korea. In Taylor Brown’s Gods of Howl Mountain, we watch the two of them do their best to keep themselves going in spite of their hardships—which have just gotten a lot harder with a new federal revenue man in town and a troublemaker who has decided that he needs to teach Rory a fatal lesson.

Granny May is one of the most terrific characters I’ve read in a while. She takes no crap and delights in saying naughty things around her grandson. She smokes an unnamed plant, makes cures for any ailment under the sun, and blows a hole in the roof when she hears what sounds like a panther scream up there. I could have read an entire book about her because she’s fascinating. Her grandson, Rory, is interesting in a less flashy way. He suffers flashbacks and pain in his lost leg. After tangling with another whiskey runner, Cooley, Rory ends up in an escalating series of showdowns with the disturbing man.

Just to make things even more interesting, there are also interstitial scenes that help explain how Granny May and Rory ended up together on their mountain. This subplot becomes important in the book’s climax, but I was entertained enough with the fighting, Granny’s antics, and all the car racing. There’s hardly a moment in this book where the characters have a chance to catch their breaths.

Gods of Howl Mountain is a gripping read, with a good blend of pathos and humor and plenty of action. For readers looking for something that will give them a taste of the hard and wild life of Appalachia, this book is the perfect choice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 March 2018.