Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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Long Black Veil

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil begins like many other “awful thing happens to a group of friends”stories, but it quickly becomes more complicated—and more affecting. We are told at the beginning that some of the friends will die. What we don’t know until much later is why everything happened the way it did. While we have the mystery to sort out, Finney Boylan also gives us a moving portrait of a trans woman who wrestles with the long shadow of her past.

Long Black Veil moves back and forth in time from 1980, when the awful thing happened, to the later 1980s to 2015. The awful thing is the death of one of the friends when they get locked inside the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary. No body is found (not until 2015), so the friend is only missing officially. The night at the Penitentiary breaks up the friends, who drift through the next 35 years. The chapters change perspective from one friend to another, so we get to see how the death has arrested their development into adulthood. They can function, but it’s clear that none of them is living the life they wanted—with one exception.

The exception is Judith. Judith was born in a male body before transitioning in the late 1980s. She hasn’t told her husband or her adopted son anything about her past in the sixteen years they’ve been a family; the men have told her they don’t want to know. There are some small marital spats, but Judith is very much content with her life. To be honest, I was much more interested in her character than in some of the others because I wanted to see how Finney Boylan would depict someone who didn’t feel right in the body they were born in.

The mystery part of Long Black Veil gives some added tension to the whole, but I think I might have been happy with just Judith’s story on its own. That said, when the literary and mystery parts of the novel start to converge again at the end of the book, I liked how the narratives asked the same question in two different ways. The question, of course, is how do you make amends for the past? In Judith’s case, it was her initial disappearance and starting her life over without telling anyone. In the case of the rest of the characters, it’s owning up to what really happened to their friend that night at the Penitentiary.

On balance, I enjoyed reading Long Black Veil in spite of some clumsiness with the disparate genre elements. What made this book so engrossing was the psychological portrait of Judith as she becomes the person she always was on the inside.

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

The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

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The Gargoyle Hunters

1974 is a hard year for Griffin Watts. His parents have split up and they argue over money when they do see each other. He’s growing up with little guidance in a chaotic household. Plus, there’s a girl he likes, but Griffin has no idea how to be with girls. In The Gargoyle Hunters, a coming-of-age novel by John Freeman Gill, Griffin gets a hard lesson in hanging on to the past as he works with his father to save New York City’s architectural heritage from neglect and urban renewal.

Griffin is 13 in the summer of 1974. He’s young enough that he still does what his parents tell him (mostly), but is starting to get old enough to wonder if what his parents tell him to do is really the right thing. Near the beginning of The Gargoyle Hunters, Griffin is pressed into service by his father to “salvage” terra cotta sculptures and other decorations from New York’s remaining Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings. To get closer to his father, Griffin soaks up his father’s stories about New York history and architecture.

At first, working with his father is a thrill. They bond over the history of the city and the dangerous lengths they have to go to save architectural ornaments. But their expeditions always take place at night and many have some element of breaking and entering about them. Before too long, Griffin begins to see that his father’s salvage business is an obsession. Meanwhile, Griffin has to contend with his regular life as a thirteen year old with girls, teenaged humiliation, a distant mother, poorly thought out pranks, and just trying to figure out who he is as a person while the city of New York goes through its worst financial crisis.

I was initially drawn to The Gargoyle Hunters because of the architectural salvage. I love older buildings’ elegance and detail. When I visit places like Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, I like to wander around and gawk at the details on hundred year old buildings. Newer, plainer architecture doesn’t appeal to me. Architectural nostalgia, I found, is the backbone for this book. We can’t go back to the past, none of us. What we can do is remember what came before, preserve the best parts, but keep in mind that the future is ahead of us like a lot ready for a new building. After all, all of the great cities are buried on layers of history that never really go away.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 March 2017.

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

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The Wages of Sin

It seems like everything is against Sarah Gilchrist in The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh. She’s enrolled in one of the first classes of women in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, so she faces harassment by the male students and staff. Because of an incident in her past, she is shunned by several of the female students. Her aunt and uncle—the only members of her family currently speaking to her—are pious, traditional people who want to marry Sarah off as quickly as possible. As if this wasn’t enough to cope with, a patient Sarah sees at the clinic where she volunteers turns up dead in the University’s anatomy lab the next day. Sarah, being the determined young woman she is, dives right into the mystery.

I would have been hooked by The Wages of Sin even if it hadn’t been a mystery. I am a sucker for medical history and this book plunged me right into the thick of it by dropping me into Sarah Gilchrist’s head as she tries to overcome her trepidation in the anatomy lab. We spend a day with Sarah as she braves school and the free clinic—with its testy, unwashed patients—before the main action kicks off. At the clinic, we meet Lucy, a young prostitute who begs the doctor to give her an abortion (which was illegal at the time). The next day, Sarah gets a nasty shock when she recognizes Lucy on the anatomy lab table. Sarah begins to ask questions in places that are entirely unsuitable for a young lady of her status and reputation because she knows that no one else will. In Edinburgh of the 1890s, no one seems to miss one more prostitute.

While Sarah tries to manage school and her relatives, she digs deeper and deeper into Lucy’s life. Unfortunately for her, she often charges down blind alleys and makes enemies along the way. One of those enemies, her very own professor Merchiston, fascinates her in a way that readers of romance novels will recognize—though Sarah resists and the plot doesn’t make it easy for her to get past her first impressions of the man. Sarah’s blunders make the story that much more believable for me; I distrust amateur detectives who are too confident and capable on their first case.

The only thing I did have a problem with in this genuinely engrossing novel was the ending. I felt the solution to the mystery came too soon and didn’t make much sense considering where Sarah had spent her efforts. I can forgive this because I really enjoyed Sarah and Merchiston’s characters. (This is also a debut novel and I expect a few hiccups in a debut.) The ending of The Wages of Sin makes it clear that more adventures are in store for Sarah and the professor. I look forward to seeing them again in future novels.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

Mister Memory, by Marcus Sedgwick

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Mister Memory

Most of us wish we had better memories. It would be nice not to blank on names and dates when under pressure. But I don’t think any of us would want a memory as perfect as Marcel Despres’. In Marcus Sedgwick’s Mister Memory, Marcel remembers everything from the time he was born (even before if we can believe him). He gets lost in Proustian reveries that can last for hours as details remind him of other memories which remind him of something else entirely. He’s even managed to turn his memory into a career. Unfortunately for Marcel, his memory regularly forces him to relive the moment when he shot his wife and killed her.

We meet Marcel shortly after the day he shot his wife. There’s no question about what happened. He caught his wife with her lover and shot her with the gun they had just bought. Marcel admits it to the police who show up. But instead of shipping him off to Devil’s Island, the local prefect of police decides to send him to Les Invalides, a Parisian mental asylum. His doctor is fascinated and keeps testing Marcel to see just how extensive Marcel’s memory is and how it works—and we start to see his memory as a curse.

Meanwhile, an inspector who can’t let Marcel’s case go keeps asking questions. First, the questions are about why Marcel was sent to Les Invalides instead of the prison colony. Then he asks about Marcel’s wife and her past. More and more loose threads appear and it turns out that the case of the man with the perfect memory, who can remember every moment of his wife’s shooting, is a lot more complicated than anyone realized.

When I first started Mister Memory, I was interested in the character Sedgwick created. I got lost with Marcel in his memories of life in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. But what really hooked me were the spectacular twists that started coming about halfway through the book. This is one of the best plotted books I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

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The Lost Book of the Grail

Lovett continues his theme of literary mysteries in The Lost Book of the Grail. Previous books have dealt with lost Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This time, Lovett explores new metafictional heights in the most literary grail quest I’ve ever encountered. The Lost Book of the Grail tells the story of Arthur Prescott’s meticulous progress through the library of Barchester Cathedral’s library to find any clues that would prove his grandfather correct: that the holy grail is somewhere in Barchester. Along the way, he has help from a talkative American digitizer and his fellow bibliophiles.

The Lost Book of the Grail opens with a surprising bit of action. One night in 1941, German bombers—lost on the way to London—dropped bombs on Barchester Cathedral. (Fellow readers might recognize the name Barchester from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire novels.) A young choir boy is pressed into service to help rescue books from the cathedral library before they’re destroyed. After rescuing the books, he spots a mysterious man stealing one of them. We then jump ahead to 2016, where Arthur Prescott is working on a guidebook to the cathedral. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on. In reality he’s seeking any information about St. Ewolda, the local Saxon saint, and trying to find more evidence that the holy grail might have made it to Barchester in the early middle ages. His grandfather earnestly believed that the grail had somehow come to their out of the way county before disappearing from the historical record.

This introduction might make the book sound like another The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a lot slower and a lot funnier than Dan Brown’s novel. Arthur is the consummate luddite. He loathes the modern era and prefers to spend this time in the cathedral library, reading medieval Latin. He, at first, considers the presence of Bethany an intrusion of the worst kind. She’s there to digitize the manuscripts and books in the library at the behest of an American billionaire. She’s very talkative and loves taking tangents—but she can also argue Arthur to a standstill, which he enjoys in spite of himself. Just reading their dialog is delightful.

While Arthur and Bethany work their way through the historical clues, we get brief scenes from previous centuries that let us know that we’re on the right track. Centuries ago, a monk from Glastonbury asked the monks at St. Ewolda’s to hide a treasure. Since that time, one guardian has kept the secret safe from vikings, Henry VIII’s monastery breakers, and Roundheads. Now the big danger is lack of funds for restoring a cathedral that’s starting to fall apart. The race to find something to save the cathedral before the library is sold off provides a bit of tension among all the page turning.

If you’re the sort of person who gets excited about research, The Lost Book of the Grail will be absolute catnip. If you’re the sort of person who loves characters who bicker before and after they realize they love each other, you’ll have a good time with this book. If you’re a little squeamish about religion, well, this book will still be pretty enjoyable.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss and NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd

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A Man of Genius

I was immediately intrigued by the description of A Man of Genius, by Janet Todd: Gothic novelist Ann St. Clair becomes involved in her own Gothic romance with a mad genius that ends in violence. Even if it weren’t set mostly in nineteenth century Venice, I would have picked it up. Unfortunately, the execution of Ann’s story leaves much to be desired. The pacing is off for the first third. Todd switches between different characters’ perspectives at odd moments and for no discernible reason. And, as if this weren’t enough flaws for one book, the loathed the way the various Gothic-inspired mysteries were resolved. I only finished it because I wanted to know the answers to those mysteries.

The first third of A Man of Genius is any self-respecting woman’s nightmare. Ann St. Clair is a successful, though not very talented, scribbler of Gothic mysteries. She is contentedly independent when she meets Robert James. James once wrote a fragment of an epic poem that has made him sort of famous. Now his “career” consists of rambling about his big ideas to a group of followers and fellow artists. Ann falls in love with him and attaches herself to him as much as he will allow. Ann shares her miseries while trying to explain why James is a genius and why she loves him, sounding much like any person who falls in love with an awful human being and wants to justify their feelings.

It’s clear that James is more disturbed than enlightened, though Ann keeps hoping that he will find a way to finish his magnum opus. When James decides to leave London for somewhere sunny, Ann packs up her life and follows him south. They eventually settle in Venice. For me, this is where A Man of Genius started to get good. In Venice, worried about money, Ann strikes off and lands in good company. She finds work helping an aristocratic Venetian practice her English. Working in the city provides an escape from her self-appointed task as James’ caretaker—and a relief from my having to read about the woes of a man who clearly needed psychotropic medication.

The Venetian section is also where the Gothic elements of the novel start to appear. James turns violent and unhinged. A man appears to be following Ann around Venice. There are questions about James’ past and political activities. These don’t reach a boil until much later. Until they did, I enjoyed wandering around post-Napoleonic Venice with Ann as she learned to rediscover herself as an independent woman.

In the last third, events pick up the pace, the mysteries deepened, and I found myself in yet another part of the book that didn’t gel with the other parts. A Man of Genius really did feel like three fragments glued into one novel. Even the writing style shifts, from literary vignettes and snippets to more traditional prose. I’ve often seen novels described in reviews as uneven and this book is a textbook example of that criticism. I suspect that the main problem is Todd just tried to stuff too much in. If the book had just been a Gothic pastiche or a literary psychological thriller, A Man of Genius would have worked much better. As it is, this book is a mess.

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi

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The Pearl that Broke Its Shell

As depicted by Nadia Hashimi in The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, there is only one correct way to be a woman. First, girls are obedient daughters, then they are obedient wives who have sons. There is only one tiny exception; everything else is deeply wrong or criminal. The exceptions are the bacha posh, girls who dress and act as sons for families that don’t already have a boy. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell tells the story of two girls who live as boys for a time before returning to lives as women. It is also a story of hardship, violence, and gendered oppression. Those looking for an easy read should steer clear.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Rahima grows up as one of five daughters until her mother cuts her hair, puts her in boys’ clothes, and has her act as the family’s son. Living as a bacha posh is unusual, but Rahima is following the example of her legendary great great great-grandmother, Shekiba. Both women’s lives follow a similar pattern. They live with their families, relatively happily, until disaster strikes. In Shekiba’s case, cholera and grief kill off every member of her family. In Rahima’s case, it’s a father’s opium addiction and a heavy hitting local warlord breaking up the family.

In alternating chapters, we see Rahima and Shikiba rise and (mostly) fall over the course of their lives. We see their misery as they are mistreated by the people who take them after their families can no longer care for them. For both women, live with their new families means constant menial labor, insults, and the threat of violence. Watching these two women threatened and beaten by the other women in their families—especially their dreaded elderly female relatives—is especially painful to watch. The only time Rahima and Shekiba can live without fear is when they are living as boys. Boys are valued in Afghan society, indulged and treasured. Having a son elevates a woman’s status.

Both Rahima and Shekiba eventually become mothers, but that’s where their stories diverge. One will find a measure of security in her role. For the other, motherhood means tying herself even closer to a family that wants to get rid of her. I won’t say what happens to who, so as not to ruin the whole book for readers who want to tackle this book. But I wanted to bring it up because, in Rahima and Shekiba’s culture, being the mother of sons is the best (and usually only) path for a woman to take. In western society, motherhood is one of several paths a woman can take—all of them equally valid. The important distinction is that, where Rahima and Shekiba are forced to marry and have children, women in western society are free to choose what fits them best. The Pearl that Broke Its Shell, however, is all about the lack of choice for women in their world.

Bodies of Water, by V.H. Leslie

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Bodies of Water

V.H. Leslie’s short novella, Bodies of Water, is perfect for feminist reading. In addition to the overt themes of women overcoming damaging relationships with men, there are also repeated metaphors of water, women’s perspectives of reality, and wombs. I enjoyed this ghostly story, but I feel that it is a dissertation waiting to happen. This isn’t a criticism. It’s more a warning that, if you are or have ever been an English major, those close reading skills will activate before too many pages and may get the way of really sinking into the story.

Bodies of Water parallels to lives that intersect at the same place, a century apart. In the 1870s, Evelyn has been sent to Wakewater House for the water cure. She has been diagnosed with hysteria after an incident that is only revealed later. Later, Wakewater has been turned into Wakewater Apartments and Kirsten has just moved in. She bought the place because it overlooks the Thames and just couldn’t resist the draw of the water. It soon becomes clear that Wakewater Apartments is haunted by what happened in Evelyn’s time.

In alternating chapters, we learn more about what sent Evelyn to Wakewater, what the water cure entails (lots of pruniness), and the psychic scars that were left behind. This might make the house seem sinister, but it’s not so much the house. Rather, the haunting is much more severe and strange than I was expecting at the outset of the novel. I’m not entirely sure I buy what Leslie was trying to sell me, but I was very interested in what she did with the idea of female despair and anger and the river.

Bodies of Water is the second novella I’ve read from Salt Publishing. It’s also the second novella I’ve enjoyed. The form is amazing for what the authors are able to pack into a limited number of pages. The stories they tell need a little room…but too much more would probably kill the driving pace the authors’ set. I’m glad there’s a publishing house out there that will take a chance on novellas. I’m also grateful to the readers who pointed me in the direction of these books.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers

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The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Placidia only knew her future husband for 48 hours before she married him. They met when he bought a mule from her father and fell in fascination (if not love) dancing at her step-sister’s wedding. But the new Mrs. Hockaday is separated from her new husband when he is summoned back to Stonewall Jackson’s regiment two days after the wedding. They two of them remain apart until the end of the Civil War. The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, is told in letters and documents as others try to figure out what happened during the Hockadays’ separation, Placidia’s trial for infanticide, and the aftermath.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is divided into parts that span 30 years of family history. The first part is a series of letters between Placidia and her relative, Mildred. Placidia is in jail, awaiting trial for supposedly killing the child she conceived a bore while Major Hockaday was at war. Placidia infuriates her cousin by talking around what happened, avoiding all direct questions. She tells Mildred about how she and the Major met, their rapid marriage, and their farewell. Just before the trial is about to begin, the novel jumps ahead from 1865 to 1892. Placidia’s son, Achilles, is told by the Major to destroy Placidia’s papers and the diary she kept on the illustration pages of a copy of David Copperfield. 

The Hockadays might have been an ordinary loving couple if it hadn’t been for timing and setting. They live in rural South Carolina, which was overrun with deserters and bandits while most of the men were fighting in the Confederate Army. While the Major fights in huge battles at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, seeing all the horrors of the Civil War, Placidia has to deal with floods, the aforementioned deserters and bandits, and a disintegrating way of life. Rivers doesn’t make the mistake of writing southerners with modern sensibilities about slavery. The Hockadays do own slaves. The Major is a Confederate. But it’s hard not to sympathize with these characters, even without their lightning strike love for each other.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Placidia after the first part. She doesn’t deny having a child and that the child died. It’s clear, however, that she’s protecting someone or several someones. It takes Achilles’ later efforts and the diary to put it all together. By the end, I deeply admired Placidia’s strength and love of family. What begins as a sinister mystery becomes a moving story of a woman and a man trying to make peace with violence and love. Both characters suffer from what we would now call post-traumatic stress syndrome, but in a time when men were expected to be soldiers without complaint and women were expected to be reputable above all else. I very much enjoyed this book. The books that can surprise me are always a joy to read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.