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.

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.

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.

The Hope and Anchor, by Julia Kite

38168618Neely and Andrea are linked by one woman that they love, but don’t actually know. It’s only when Angela goes missing at the beginning of Julia Kite’s The Hope and Anchor that they realize how little they know about her. Her absence is a huge hole in their lives, especially for her girlfriend, Neely. As Neely wanders the streets, looking for Angela and questioning their mutual acquaintances about where she might have gone, the novel grows ever more tragic. By the end, I was stunned at the emotion pouring out of the book.

Neely and Angela live on Harrow Road, in West London, but neither of them is there at the opening of The Hope and Anchor. Neely is returning from an ill-advised one night stand with Sam. Angela never turns up after an evening of mysterious errands that Neely only learns about much later. As Neely walks up and down London’s streets, wracking her brains for any clue about where Angela might have gone, we learn about Angela’s tragic, brutal past and the mismatches between the two. Neely is middle-class, intelligent, but moans about how she just hasn’t made a success of herself. Angela is from a poor neighborhood. Her life with Neely is much better than what she had as a child.

Despite the mismatches of expectations, Neely and Angela make each other happy in that ineffable way that soulmates do. Which makes this novel all the more heartbreaking when we and Neely find out what happened the night Angela went missing. Most of the book focuses on Neely, but we also get to see how this disappearance affects Angela’s sister, Andrea. After getting the news, Andrea is beset by memories of how violent and angry she used to be in her efforts to protect her sister. Andrea had managed to put most of her past behind her after marrying and having children. But after learning about Angela, it all comes flooding back. Like Neely, Andrea isn’t sure how to be without Angela.

The ending of The Hope and Anchor is explosive. The beginning of the novel didn’t lead me to expect where it would end up. This isn’t to say that the ending was out-of-character. In retrospect, it fits, because this book is all about what one finds after kicking over metaphorical rocks to see what awful things are crawling around underneath. The last rock that gets kicked over in this book is a doozy. Readers who are interested in taking this book on should start bracing themselves around the halfway point. The Hope and Anchor really packs a wallop.

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

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.

School for Psychics, by K.C. Archer

35297405For someone who bills themselves as a human lie detector, Teddy Cannon sure struggles when it comes to deciding who to trust or not in K.C. Archer’s thrilling School for PsychicsShe first used her ability to figure out when people are bluffing to win loads of money playing poker in Las Vegas. But when that blows up in her face, she is recruited to the eponymous school, where psychics are trained to work for law enforcement. With every chapter, Teddy gets deeper and deeper into a decades-old conspiracy. There are double-crosses and betrayals, lies and deceptions, with Teddy caught right in the middle. If her lie detecting skills had been a little better, Teddy might have been able to avoid a lot of heartache (but then we would have had a much less entertaining book).

After her recruitment, Teddy finds herself at the Whitfield Institute among two distinct groups of students. On one side are the young men and women dubbed the Alphas. They are psychic but also very much straight arrows. They’re fit. They’re smart. They have their shit together…unlike the other group of students, who call themselves Misfits. Like Teddy, these students have struggled with their various abilities: death warnings, talking to animals, starting fires, etc. Teddy might be the most powerful among them. This might have helped her to get ahead at Whitfield if it weren’t for the fact that something sinister is clearly going on.

School for Psychics reminded me of the Harry Potter novels with a lot less whimsy. Teddy struggles with her powers and her course work while at the same time trying to figure out why her blood was stolen from the school lab and what really happened to her biological parents. Since Teddy and her classmates are legally adults, there is more drinking and sex, though. (Hilariously, Teddy and the pyrokinetic set off the smoke detectors when they spend the night together.) By the time graduation rolls around, Teddy and her ragtag band of friends are ready to take on the baddie.

It might sound dismissive to say that School for Psychics is like Harry Potter, but I don’t want to give the impression that this book is derivative or unoriginal. I was hugely entertained by this book. I could hardly put it down because it’s a great blend of science fiction and thriller. This characters are great and the constant question of who was telling the truth kept me guessing right along with Teddy until the end. This really was a fun read.

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

Bluff, by Michael Kardos

36452743They say there is honor among thieves, but that honor is thin on the ground in Michael Kardos’ Bluff. This is unfortunate because magician Natalie Webb could use all the help she gets after a trick goes wrong at one of her rare gigs. Her bright idea to make some money to pay her legal bills lands her in bigger trouble than she could ever have realized.

When Natalie does things wrong, she does them spectacularly wrong. At her corporate gig, she lets a jerk get under her skin and throws a card in anger, almost blinding the man. The jerk doesn’t end up blind, fortunately for Natalie, but the jerk sues her for more money than she can make even if her career weren’t on the skids. She comes up with the bright idea of profiling a professional cardsharp (basically a cheat) because there are a lot of similarities in how they handle cards. Everyone tries to dissuade her, but she dives headlong into the idea.

The first card cheat she finds is awful, but he accidentally introduces her to a woman with real skills. When that woman offers Natalie a one-time-only-big-pay-low-risk scam, Natalie tries to resist. She doesn’t see herself as a cheat. She’s a magician. But those bills aren’t getting any smaller, so she says yes. And then things get even worse.

Reading Bluff is like watching a car wreck. I couldn’t look away. I just kept hoping that something would go right for Natalie. Her problems are not really her fault. She just has poor impulse control. I don’t want to say what happens at the end of the book; that would ruin a fantastic heist plot. But I can say that at least the book delivers a big payoff for its readers. I had a blast reading this book.

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