review · science fiction

The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

Is it ironic that the creators of time travel never seem to know what will come of their discovery? Could the four women who create time travel in England in the 1960s have known that their invention would lead to a byzantine, temporally tangled, terrifyingly shadowy bureaucracy? They definitely couldn’t have predicted what time travel itself could do the psyches of people who undertake it. In Kate Mascarenhas’ fascinating novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, we dive deeply into these questions, especially that last one.

Barbara was one of the original four women who created time travel but, after an incident captured live by the BBC, she was pushed out of the quartet and forever banned from even working for the Conclave. Decades later, when another time travel starts to send warnings? hints? to Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, a spectacularly complex plot kicks off that will take the rest of the book, several investigators, and a lot of head-scratching to figure out. I loved every page of it.

The title of the book–and many events therein–force us to think about the consequences of skipping through time. A lot of the time travelers employed by the Conclave (including all of the original inventors except Barbara) “cheat” by looking ahead to see what happens to themselves. On the one hand, they are very confident. They know they will accomplish what they set out to do, because they already know what the outcome is. On the other, knowing when they’ll die and how, who their spouses will be, and so on, seems to leach their emotions of their intensity; they just don’t feel as much after a few trips. The only way to feel anything is to haze the new recruits or play chilling psychological games with civilians. For a few recruits, time traveling leads to debilitating maladaptive coping behavior or triggers latent mental illnesses. On top of a wonderfully complicated plot, The Psychology of Time Travel is one of the best “set up a scenario and let’s see what happens” books I’ve read in a long time.

The more I read The Psychology of Time Travel, the more I enjoyed it. The characters are fascinatingly warped and the moving parts of the plot slide around before satisfactorily clicking into place. It’s the kind of book where, at the end, you see that everything up to that point was perfectly placed, necessary, even fated. It’s the kind of plot mastery that I absolutely adore; I got a story that was utterly gripping, but only saw the author’s pen at work at the very end. Reading The Psychology of Time Travel is like watching an elaborate magic trick and getting to learn how it worked afterwards.

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

mystery · review

In the Dark, by Cara Hunter

In the Dark is the second novel in Cara Hunter’s DI Adam Fawley series, but I was able to dive right into this twisty, fiendish mystery. The mystery is definitely the thing here. The novel kicks off with a bang as an impatient new home owner takes his frustration out on a damp-damaged wall between his house and his neighbor’s. The man gets the shock of his life when he discovers that a dehydrated, hungry young woman and her toddler son have been imprisoned on the other side.

In the Dark is, as I mentioned above, a series entry. The name of the series led me to expect that I would be in DI Fawley’s head for most, if not all, of the novel—but that is far from the case. Instead, Hunter includes scenes featuring the other detectives in Fawley’s team, BBC and local news stories, texts, police interviews, and witness statements. I loved the way this novel is told because a) I enjoyed being a detective in my own right and b) it added even more twists and turns to an already complicated (but always plausible) mystery.

And this is definitely a twisty novel. The early evidence leads us to believe that the owner of the house where the girl and her child were imprisoned had kidnapped the woman two or three years before the novel opened. The owner of the house is suffering from dementia and it’s impossible to get much out of him except verbal venom. His social worker didn’t have a clue and he had no family. Even though Fawley and Co., have enough of their plates in trying to figure out who the young woman is and what really happened, Fawley notices that the accused’s house is directly behind the home of a woman who went missing two years earlier and was never found.

Saying any more would definitely ruin this dark, fascinating mystery. I didn’t see any of the twists coming but, in the end, it all made a terrible kind of sense. The only thing I can safely say is that this book ends up in a completely different place from where I expected. The more I read, the deeper In the Dark got its hooks into me. I really, really liked it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

historical fiction · review

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls

At the beginning of The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, gentlewoman Fleetwood Shuttleworth believes that she is doomed. She has just found a letter in her husband’s study from a doctor saying that another pregnancy will be fatal. She is early in a fourth pregnancy and already suffering from severe morning sickness. But in her eyes, what makes this letter even worse is that her husband didn’t tell her about it.

Set in 1612(ish), Fleetwood is a very young wife who has been under pressure to produce a Shuttleworth heir from her marriage to Richard Shuttleworth at age 13. Fleetwood is sheltered and left too much on her own in her remote Lancashire house. Perhaps it’s not unusual then, that Fleetwood latches on to the only person she believes might see her safely through childbirth. The only problem is that Alice Gray, Fleetwood’s newly found midwife, is about to be accused of being a witch in the middle of a growing witch-hunting frenzy.

Fleetwood, at the beginning of The Familiars, is the kind of character who arouses pity. You just want to take her under your wing and protect her from the other more worldly-wise characters. Alice appears to be the strong one. She lives rough, scrapping for herself and her drunkard father. But as the witch-hunt grows, Alice gets caught up in the web of accusations and its Fleetwood’s turn to be the strong savior.

The Familiars grew on me as I read it. In addition to a tense plot line, this novel touches on women’s rights, the demonization of women practicing medicine, mass hysteria, Jacobean politics, betrayal, and marriage. It was a surprise when the book was over in just over 350 pages; this book is just stuffed enough to feel like a full meal without cramming in too much. This is a solid, strongly feminist work of historical fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. 

literary fiction · review · short stories

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

historical fiction

The Orphan of Salt Winds, by Elizabeth Brooks

Somewhere on an English marsh near the southern coast, an old woman is preparing for the end of her life. From our very first introduction to Virginia Wrathmell as she is waiting for a sign that its time to make her exit, the protagonist of Elizabeth Brooks’ disturbing The Orphan of Salt Winds*, we know that something is very wrong and that it has been wrong for a very long time. The rest of the book quickly unspools to reveal what Virginia has been hiding for more than eighty years and why she thinks she needs to walk out into the marsh for the last time. 

Virginia was an unhappy orphan when she was adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. Her good luck at been adopted is severely tempered by her bad luck to be scooped up by a couple who think that maybe having a child will fix their relationship. Virginia, at age 11, is trust into the middle of an emotionally fraught household. The couple snipe at each other when they think Virginia can’t hear them. Still, Virginia bonds with Clem over the local birds and the marsh surrounding their house, Salt Winds. 

If it hadn’t been for the German crash-landing out in the marsh and Virgina’s emotional immaturity, The Orphan of Salt Wind would have been a very different—possibly less harrowing—story. Without the crash and with less of Virginia’s terrible mistakes, Virginia and her adopted mother still have to contend with the lecherous Mr. Deering. Deering was a one-time suitor for Lorna and it appears that he still hasn’t gotten the message that Lorna can’t stand the sight of him. Deering is the kind of man that women fear. He’s so reasonable all the time that it’s hard for Lorna and Virginia to get him out of their lives. After all, how can they object to a nice picnic or his insistence that they welcome him when he drops by for a friendly cuppa? Even the little touches could be explained away. The ones that can’t weren’t witnessed by anyone. Who’s to say they even happened? Before long, I dreaded Deering’s arrivals at Salt Winds almost as much as Virginia or Lorna. Throwing a German pilot and an 11-year-old who has no idea how to deal with adults and it isn’t long before everything heads straight to emotional hell.

The Orphan of Salt Winds moves back and forth in time, from the early 1940s to 2015. We’re tangled up in Virginia’s past and present, drawn in to her twisted desire for a bit of revenge before she makes her exit from the world and into her long suppressed memories. Tangle is the right word for this book. It’s messily constructed and I don’t think that all of it makes sense. The ending is also a bit rushed. That said, this book is pitch perfect when it comes to harassment from a man who has plausible deniability (and possibly sociopathy) on his side.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

For some reason, this book has a different title for the US edition. It’s original (and I think better) title is Call of the Curlew.

historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

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

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.