The Hideout, by Egon Hostovský

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The Hideout

Egon Hostovský’s The Hideout, originally published in the mid-1940s, is another Central European novella rescued from obscurity by Pushkin Press. The novella takes the form of a letter written by a Czech engineer who makes a terrible mistake just before the Germans invade the former Czechoslovakia. He is writing to the wife he left behind with their children in Prague, explaining how he ended up in a cellar in northern France about to go to his death. He begins with why he left and carries on with his misadventures up until the novella cuts off abruptly.

The unnamed engineer begins with an admission that revealed, to me, how hapless and unworldly he is. Just before the world breaks out, the engineer is working on a new kind of anti-aircraft gunsight. It’s not finished, but it’s clear that the invading Germans would be very interested in it. The engineer is—as he tells people who ask—terrified that his military secret will fall into enemy hands. But, as he admits in the letter to his wife, he is rather more interested in catching up with Madame Olga, the Jewish widow that the engineer has been interested in. She goes to Paris and he follows. When the Germans swear out an arrest warrant for him, he lands deep in the soup, deeper than he is prepared to handle.

After he lands in Paris and runs through all the money he brought, the engineer is saved from arrest or immanent death by exposure when he bumps into an old acquaintance. Dr. Aubin, after the engineer tells him of his plight, offers to put the engineer up in his cellar, feed him, and hide him until they can make other arrangements. Dr. Aubin, in a piece of clear foreshadowing, tells the engineer of a cousin who went mad while hiding. This time, the doctor declares, will be different because the engineer will be able to leave whenever he likes. The door won’t be locked.

But for our weak-willed engineer, the promise of instant freedom isn’t enough to stop him from mental suffering. The engineer’s mental state deteriorates as food and supplies get scares. Dr. Aubin works for the Resistance and is frequently called away. The loneliness and the hunger drive the engineer to the brink, until he makes a stunningly stupid mistake.

The Hideout is an interesting journey inside the brain of someone who hide from the Germans that doesn’t follow the usual trajectory of World War II on-the-lam novels. The engineer isn’t Jewish. He’s just a guy who knows a little too much and who is terrible at realizing how dire circumstances are when he flees. Perhaps the best way to describe him is that the engineer is a guy whose life is heavily touched by good and bad (mostly bad) luck. His letter is deeply affecting. Even though he never apologizes for his actions, it’s clear he regrets ever leaving his family.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be published 25 July 2017.

The Epiphany Machine, by David Burr Gerrard

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The Epiphany Machine

Along with the quest to find one’s purpose in life, the next biggest challenge a human can face is to figure out who they are and find a way to live with themselves. In David Burr Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine, we see that struggle over and over as Venter Lowood deals with the fallout from several lifetimes of bad decisions and misunderstandings. At the heart of all these decisions and misunderstandings is the eponymous machine, which tattoos an epiphany on the forearm of anyone who uses it. The epiphanies reveal truths, prophecy fates, and generally disrupt everything. And yet, for a book about figuring things out, The Epiphany Machine is a very satisfying read because it answers so many of the questions posed in its pages.

Venter Lowood was always going to have a screwed up childhood. Both of his parents got epiphany tattoos from Adam Lyons, the owner of the epiphany machine, that informed them that they would be terrible parents. Venter grows up nursing both mother and father issues before he is talked into a job by Lyons himself. For a few years, Venter records the oral histories of people who get tattoos—which then appear between the chapters of the novel—before he is talked out of believing in the powers of the machine by a know-it-all roommate. Once Venter falls out of belief in the machine, he drifts through life following the pushes and prods of the people he meets. But then, what do you expect from someone whose tattoo reads “Dependent on the opinions of others”?

The Epiphany Machine is Venter’s story, but it’s also the story of a group of people whose lives were irreparably changed by the machine. We learn about what happened to John Lennon and Mark David Chapman—who in this world received identical tattoos—the two murderous Rebecca Harts and Venter’s own Rebecca, the curious powers of the machine for identifying (or not) criminals, and how a person’s curiosity about and obliviousness to themselves is universal. After a character receives an epiphany tattoo, there is a stomach-dropping moment when the tattoo is revealed. The character tries to make sense of it. Very rarely does a character feel peace when they work out what their epiphany means. More often there are tears, outrage, or drastic and deadly actions.

All of Venter’s chapters and the oral histories layer on top of one another, providing clues that explain what the epiphanies really meant and how they were so often misinterpreted by their owners. Characters appear in each other’s oral histories so that I got to see what happened to secondary and tertiary characters when an epiphany tattoo derailed their lives. I really enjoyed seeing it all come together by the end. I found this book deeply satisfying since so many loose ends were tied up by the time I got to the end of the book. Usually, I only feel this kind of satisfaction after reading Dickens, who leaves no questions unanswered (though Gerrard delivered answers in far fewer pages).

If nothing else, The Epiphany Machine shows that people are always mysteries until you really listen to them. Adam Lyons, a flawed, vulgar, possible guru, was a master at listening to people. Until we can do that for each other, even having an epiphany tattooed into someone’s forearm won’t help us work out who someone really is. More than that, to unriddle a person, we need to know their stories and the stories of people who appear in the story of the person we want to know. Really knowing someone is a probably impossible linear regression. Fittingly then, I found The Epiphany Machine to be an ouroboros of a novel—just like its characters—and I loved puzzling it out as I read.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Bibliotherapeutic Uses: Recommend this for readers who might need their own epiphany because they don’t see something about themselves that they need to see or, perhaps, to readers who spend a little too much time looking for themselves instead of looking at the world and people around them.

Arrowood, by Mick Finlay

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Arrowood

William Arrowood hates Sherlock Holmes. The damned man is on everyone’s lips as the best detective of the age. Arrowood would argue (and does, repeatedly) that Holmes is sloppy and relies too much on physical evidence rather than witness statements and lies. In Arrowood, by Mick Finlay, we see a better argument for Arrowood’s superiority (or not) as the detective and his partner, Norman Barnett, track down a missing Frenchman and unravel a criminal conspiracy.

Arrowood begins in classic mystery fashion when a beautiful woman walks into the detective’s consulting room and pursues him to take her case. Miss Cousture’s brother has disappeared. The evidence suggests that he fled back to the sibling’s homeland, France. Arrowood is reluctant, even when she presses him with some much needed coin, but accepts the case only when he learns that the brother works for an old enemy. Mr. Cream was responsible for a death in Arrowood’s last big case. This new case offers the detective a way to take the villain down.

Arrowood is the kind of detective who can read lies in facial expressions and discover clues in omissions. His people skills can get witness and suspects to reveal much more than they meant. He hardly has to stir from his rooms above a bakery to gather information. His style of detecting is enabled by his partner, Barnett. Barnett does all the legwork and is frequently beaten by suspects—which is a useful, if painful way, of learning that they are on the right track. Barnett is also our narrator, so we solve the mystery along with him for the most part. Thankfully, Barnett is not an idiot the way Dr. Watson is portrayed in many of the Holmes’ stories; he just misses tiny clues that Arrowood can pick up on.

While we rarely see Holmes mess up, Arrowood and Barnett make mistake after mistake. Their history with the London Metropolitan Police means that the pair have almost no support as they barge into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. When Holmes does make a mistake, is usually because he’s been temporary outsmarted by a worthy adversary. When Arrowood screws up, its because of bad luck or because the villains are more vicious than anticipated.

I enjoyed the well-constructed mystery at the center of this novel and I particularly enjoyed Arrowood’s soliloquies about Holmes. I’m not sure I’ll follow the series, however. Apart from Arrowood’s potshots at Holmes, I didn’t love this novel. It’s a solid novel, but it didn’t thrill me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn

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Devil’s Call

Even though Li Lian was warned that three bad men were on their way to her De Soto, Nebraska home, she was not prepared for what would happen—not that night and not during the long months she would spend tracking down the man who killed her husband. Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn is a tale in the tradition of Western revenge, but with the added bonus of witchcraft and devilry. You see, Li Lian is a witch from a long line of witches and the man she’s hunting is no ordinary man.

Devil’s Call is told to us directly by Li Lian, though she is narrating what happened to her unborn child. She grew up without knowing the father who gave her Asian eyes and an Asian name. She didn’t want her own child to not know the kindness of her murdered husband. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Li Lian wants her child to understand the choices she made and who she was before she took up her quest for vengeance.

Li Lian tracks back and forth through her life and family history, revealing the witchy history of her female forbearers. While she tells us why the women in her family had to flee their ancestral Scotland, she also traces her too-brief courtship and life with her husband before launching into the steps she took to trace the very bad man who suddenly arrived to destroy her life. Each iteration of these parts of the story takes us deeper into a secret war between witches and the men (or creatures) that have hunted them over the centuries.

Devil’s Call also gets darker and darker as Li Lian learns more about George Dalton, the man (sort of) she is hunting. Dalton is not a hard man to follow, as the line goes, because he leaves dead people everywhere he goes. We know Li Lian will find him. What we don’t know is who will come out on top in the end. This is a tense, gripping read with an ending that turned everything I had learned on its head. Devil’s Call is short, but it packs a hell of a punch.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

The Atlas of Forgotten Places, by Jenny D. Williams

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The Atlas of Forgotten Places

Atonement is one of the most difficult things for people to achieve, more so when the person trying to atone is the only one who can forgive. In The Atlas of Forgotten Places, by Jenny D. Williams, several of the main characters are seeking to atone for their own crimes or the crimes of their family members—and they’re trying to do so in the middle of an active war zone as the Ugandan army is routing out members of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The emotional and physical conflicts in this book make for a nail-biting reading experience. Worse, it doesn’t follow the tropes of thrillers, so we don’t know until the very end if the protagonists live or not; there are no guarantees in The Atlas of Forgotten Places.

Sabine Hardt, a former aide worker from Germany, and Rose Akulu, a translator and transcriptionist who was once a captive of the LRA, take turns narrating the novel. Both are seeking someone they lost. In Sabine’s case, she’s looking for her niece after Lily failed to make her flight back to the States from Kampala. Rose is trying to find her lover, Ocen, who disappeared with Lily sometime in the weeks before Christmas, 2008. For the first third of The Atlas for Forgotten Places, the two women work separately to find their lost loved ones. After Sabine meets Rose’s boss, the two women strike a truce and team up to follow the faint trail Lily left behind.

While the two women try to find their lost ones, they each take time to reflect on what brought them to this place and this time: betrayals, lies, atonement. Both Rose and Sabine have had hard lives. In Rose’s case, the hardness came partly from her abduction and years with the LRA and partly from the guilt and grief she’s carried ever since. Sabine became an aide worker because of something that her grandfather did—to say more would spoil the revelation. Now she’s trying to find her niece in part because she wasn’t very supportive of Lily while Lily did her own stint of aide work.

The reflectiveness and uncertainty of The Atlas of Forgotten Places—along with the setting—make for a thriller elevated above the typical emotional shallowness of the genre. It touches on the sorrow and anger that a long civil war causes, the mad stubbornness of the men who wage that war, the seeming futility of aide work, and self-imposed quests for atonement. The Atlas of Forgotten Places refuses the easy path, right to its very last pages.

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

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

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The Witches of New York

There is a feeling throughout Ami McKay’s entertaining novel, The Witches of New York, of a gathering storm. A war is brewing in New York between witches and their traditional enemies—people who take Exodus 22:18 very seriously—backed by some very scary demons. As the novel picks up speed, that feeling of dread builds, right up to the nail-bitingly tense ending. I hope that this book has sequels, because I enjoyed my walk on the wild side of a magical fin de siècle New York.

In September of 1880, Beatrice Dunn makes a wish: that she will become the shop assistant at Tea and Sympathy in New York. Because she makes the wish using a witch’s ladder charm, events line up to take her straight there and land the job. Her employers, Eleanor and Adelaide, are real witches and the perfect guides to help Beatrice explore the supernatural. Things aren’t that simple, though Beatrice doesn’t learn this until quite a bit later. Chapters narrated by other characters, accompanied by newspaper clippings and excerpts from a pamphlet by Cotton Mather on how to break a bewitching let us know that Beatrice, Eleanor, and Adelaide face serious danger from the deranged reverend at a nearby church, his equally disturbed organist, and their mysterious patron.

I was less interested in Beatrice (who serves mostly as plot catalyst and character-who-has-things-explained-to-them) than in her employers. Both Eleanor and Adelaide have fascinating and detailed backstories. Through them, we learn about the secret history of witchcraft (Eleanor) and the more scammy side (Adelaide) of fortune-telling and cold reading. Eleanor is cautious, devoted to her craft, and provides some much needed wisdom for Beatrice. Adelaide helps the girl develop confidence, by showing her how to put on a performance. (If this book had been more lighthearted, Adelaide would be a master of headology.)

There is a strong feminist streak in The Witches of New York. The witches, for all their faults, are sympathetically portrayed. Their opposites are very much not. The reverend and the organist, Mrs. Piddock, have the worst traits of un-Christian Christians: judgmental, unforgiving, fundamentalist, Puritanical. Mrs. Piddock is devoted to her faith. She believes she’s doing the right thing by stalking and harassing the witches, trying to keep people away from them. The reverend is a serial killer in the trappings of a witch hunter and man of God. Neither of them has a redeeming feature and there’s no doubt who we’re supposed to root for. I’m all for feminism, but it’s less interesting to me when our nuanced heroes take on unambiguously evil villains.

Much of The Witches of New York has the feel of a first novel in a series. So many characters are introduced (though a few meet a brutal end at the reverend’s hands) that it feels like McKay is setting up a chess board. There’s also a lot more attention paid to world-building than letting the plot race—which explains why this book is nearly 600 pages long. There’s enough episodic action to keep the exposition from slowing the pace too much, but I felt like the book is setting us up for an even longer story. The Witches of New York has a satisfying conclusion, but it leaves unfinished business.

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

Where the Light Falls, by Allison Pataki and Owen Pataki

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Where the Light Falls

Allison and Owen Pataki’s Where the Light Falls is the story of two parallel lives during the tumultuous years of the French Reign of Terror and the wars immediately after. André is the son of a marquis who struggles to escape the taint of being an aristocrat. Jean-Luc is an idealistic young lawyer who moved to Paris to be a part of the new government. Both of these naïve young men quickly learn that the truth is not enough to save them when they become the targets of men who are more than willing to use the mob’s bloodlust to settle old scores.

Where the Light Falls opens in 1792, a few months before the Battle of Valmy. Jean-Luc is working for the Revolutionary government, but only as a clerk cataloging the seized belongings of aristocrats and clergymen (most of whom have gone to the guillotine). He wants to do more, contenting himself with working pro bono for citizens with legal complains no one else will touch until something more meaningful comes along. Meanwhile, André serves in the new French Army as it defends itself from foreign forces that seek to restore Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to the throne. It takes several chapters for Jean-Luc and André’s paths to cross. The two finally meet when André’s commander, General Kellerman*, is denounced towards the end of the Terror.

Once the two join forces to try and save Kellerman, the parallels between Jean-Luc and André become more pronounced. André sees his military career trampled and his life endangered when he falls in love with the wrong girl. Jean-Luc grows increasingly troubled as he learns how cynical men are using the Revolution as a weapon. Both men are believers in truth and merit, hoping that honestly will win the day—only to be bitterly disappointed when they finally learn that the world doesn’t work that way, even in a city allegedly ruled according to the ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité**.

At times, Where the Light Falls skips over important history (most of the Terror, in fact). At others, we get detailed battle scenes that go on for pages (Valmy and the Battle of the Pyramids). I found this treatment very frustrating as I am fascinated by the French Revolution. I might have liked this book better if the characters—especially the female ones—had been more fully realized. (I was especially annoyed that Jean-Luc’s wife, who had a very interesting secret, got so little page time.) Apart from Jean-Luc and André, most of the characters are straight from central casting: a damsel in frequent distress, two drunkards, and two deliriously evil villains. I finished Where the Light Falls, but I was disappointed by all the missed opportunities and clumsy writing.

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


* The Patakis have no problem manipulating history for narrative purposes. What happens to Kellerman in Where the Light Falls is very different from what happened to the historical general.
** The novel also has a very irritating habit of including French for a bit of flavor only to have an immediate translation included in character dialog. Also, I doubt that eighteenth century French people would refer to each other as their “dates” at balls and such.

The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison

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The Widow Nash

Of all the unconventional lives created for fictional heroines, I don’t know if anyone has conjured up anything as dangerously madcap as Dulcy Remfrey’s life in Jamie Harrison’s The Widow NashAs the daughter of a syphilitic geologist/miner, Dulcy grew up crisscrossing the globe as her father searched for precious minerals and cures. His death in Seattle is just the start of her own deadly adventure.

The telegram Dulcy receives at the beginning of The Widow Nash contains a double dose of bad news. Not only is her father in the last stages of syphilis, but she’s been summoned to care for him by her violent, unstable ex-fiancé. This is not a gesture of goodwill on Victor’s part. He wants Dulcy in Seattle so that, first, she can figure out where the profits from his last joint venture with Dulcy’s father went (Walton doesn’t remember) and, second, to reconnect with her. It is with the greatest trepidation that Dulcy travels to Seattle. When Walton dies without divulging his secret, Dulcy works out a way to escape Victor. (Some of the events that show why Dulcy wants to get away may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault.)

Dulcy fakes her death on a train headed back to New York for Walton’s funeral and reinvents herself as Mrs. Nash, the widow of a soldier who died during the Spanish-American War, in the rough frontier town of Livingston, Montana. As the novel progresses, we see her begin to relax into her new life even though the town is full of men as violent as Victor—though she is not the target of their wrath. Of course, some of the women (Dulcy included) are just as devious as the man. I cannot overstate how criminal this book is, as it seems like most of the secondary characters are involved in some kind of racket or other. There is some joy in the middle of all the shenanigans, as Dulcy manages to find real love in spite of her dread that Victor or his henchmen might discover her new name and whereabouts.

Even though this book is full of rogues and villains, I had a great time reading it. The plot meanders to give us excerpts from Dulcy’s former life and her father’s obsessions, but the tangle provides a portrait of an intelligent, determined woman who refuses to let anyone cow her. I loved that this book played around in the darkest of ethical gray areas as it told its tale. Dulcy and her allies bend rules until they break. Others break rules just because they can. What matters in the end, is why the rules were broken.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt

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Devastation Road

The period shortly before and after Germany surrendered in 1945 was violently chaotic. Some troops were still fighting. Others were fleeing across countries to be captured by the country of their choice. Most cities in central Europe had been bombed to smithereens. Refugees (and soldiers) were hungry, wounded, and desperate. All of this makes for a gut punch of a novel, Jason Hewitt’s Devastation Road, that reads like a World War II version of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

All Owen knows about himself as Devastation Road begins is his name, that he was maybe a pilot, and that he’s not in England. A few odd names and memories float around in his head, but nothing sticks for weeks. He also knows that he’s in hostile territory, so it’s fortunately that a young Czech Resistance fighter named Janek takes him under his teenage wing. The two barely share a common language and Janek is increasingly irritated by Owen’s faulty memory. The only reason the Czech sticks around is because Owen owes him two lives—though Owen has no idea why.

The pair duck and dodge German and Russian soldiers, heading west, until they run into another unfortunate soul. A young woman with a shaved head was trying to get someone to take her infant son, someone who could care for the child. After Owen takes the baby, Irena catches up to them and the slowly make their way to the German border through the Czech countryside. None of them are very happy about the arrangement, but not enough to strike out on their own. As the novel rolls along, Owen learns Janek and Irena’s secrets. His memories slowly return, enough for him to remember memories that he probably wishes would have remained buried.

While I enjoyed the characters, what I loved most about Devastation Road was its atmosphere of weary danger. Everyone is this novel is physically and emotionally exhausted (with a few stunning exceptions), but they carry on because the war is not quite over. Ever after the Axis surrender, the war wouldn’t be over for people looking for friends and relatives, their homes, or even just food to sustain them for another few steps. The plot serves, at least in part, as a vehicle for exploring the strange, bombed out world of central Europe in the spring of 1945.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2017.