August 08, 2016

The Long Shadow of Racism Depicted in a YA Paranormal Novel

What the Dead Want, by Nora Olson, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 304 pages, released 26 July, 2016, listed by the publisher as directed to readers thirteen years old and above

Nora Olson’s What the Dead Want explores racism, war, and hatred using both paranormal conventions and a variety of prose genres. The previous sentence may sound ponderous, but the novel isn’t. Gretchen, the protagonist, is the daughter of a father who is gone for months at a time on medical missions and a mother who ran a gallery specializing in spiritualist photography. Her mother disappeared years ago, and Gretchen is primarily being raised by a neighbor. Gretchen is, like her mother, a photographer, though not of the spiritualist variety.

At the start of summer vacation, Gretchen receives a phone call from a great-aunt she never knew of who wants to bequeath a mansion to Gretchen, but first needs Gretchen to come and help “tidy up” the place. When she enters the cluttered mansion, Gretchen realizes that tidying up will be a major undertaking—and that’s before she encounters any of the malevolent spirits who make the mansion their home.

Gretchen discovers that her great-aunt was a well-known war photographer, who spent her life capturing important, but disturbing images of some of the 20th Century’s great conflicts. In addition, the mansion grounds themselves were the site of an atrocity: a mass killing of of members of a Black church by racist vigilantes. For years accidents and deaths have occurred on the anniversary of that atrocity. And, of course, that anniversary is coming soon.

As Gretchen works to overcome the spirits haunting the mansion, she—and through her, the reader—is given a chance to reflect on the lasting impact of violence. She is moved less by the atrocities themselves than by the lost histories of those killed in the atrocities. She wants, in some way, to do right by these victims, which means she has to puzzle out “what the dead want.” Because Gretchen is both clever and brave, she finds a way of doing what she can to ease the mansion’s spirits.

Olson peppers the novel with invented “historical” documents, including newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs. This provides perspectives—both destructive and benign—beyond Gretchen’s own.

If you know a middle schooler who loves paranormal fiction and who also worries about questions of justice, What the Dead Want will provide her with satisfying reading. Yes, the world’s great history of violence can’t be easily resolved in a novel of 300 pages, but 300 pages is enough to raise important questions and to offer some possibilities for addressing these wrongs.

 

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August 04, 2016

Mystery and Religious Conflict in 16th Century Spain

The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr, (Riverhead Books), 416 Pages, released 14 June, 2016

Matthew Carr’s The Devils of Cardona is set in 16th Century Spain, a time and land fraught with conflict between the Catholic government and its morisco citizens: Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism. When a hated priest serving in a morisco community is found murdered in his own church, magistrate Bernardo de Mendoza is ordered to investigate the crime. What follows is tale of shifting suspicions and additional murders. Are these crimes being committed by moriscos? Are they being committed by powerful Catholic landowners hoping for an excuse to drive the moriscos away? Are they about faith or money or power or some combination of these?

While I’m not a historian, I want to say that I found the period detail in this novel very convincing, particularly the portrayal of religious conflict at that time. Mendoza—a humanist, which is unusual for his time—doesn’t just uncover clues to the murders. He also learns a good deal about life in the morisco community: the prejudices they face and the lengths they must go to in order to preserve their religion. Because Mendoza is not firmly committed to either side in this religious conflict, he provides an open-minded perspective that will appeal to present-day readers.

If you enjoy historical mysteries that effectively explore the eras in which they’re set, you’ll want to read The Devils of Cardona. Even if you’re not interested in historical settings, The Devils of Cardona will offer you a complex and satisfying read.

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August 03, 2016

Native American Children Stolen and Stolen Again

Stealing Indians, by John Smelcer, (Leapfrog Press), 200 pages, release date 2 August, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades six an up

John Smelcer has published over fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction—but finding a publisher for Stealing Indians was a challenge. Why? Because the topic precludes a happy ending, something generally expected in young adult fiction.

His topic is the forced removal of Native American children from their homes and their placement in residential schools. Indians are stolen in two different ways in this novel, first by their displacement, then again as the federally run schools attempt to eradicate every trace of their Indian heritage. These schools operated from the late 1800s well into the 20th Century. Many were still functioning into the 1950s; a few were still in place in the 1970s.

At the center of this novel are four friends, each from a different region and tribe. Their school, as was typical of these schools, forbids the speaking of native languages, forbids the celebration of native ceremonies, forbids all traditional practices. The punishments for breaking these rules are brutal. Students are at risk of violence and sexual assault from those running the schools and from older children. Yet the friends manage to support one another.

Stealing Indians makes for heart-breaking, but necessary, reading. Smecler’s characters are vivid and complex creations. Thanks to Smecler’s articulate, finely-tuned prose, they retain their dignity throughout the novel, as their lives narrow and grow increasingly bleak.

Smecler, son of an Alaskan Native father, has served as executive director of his tribe’s Heritage Foundation. He has worked compiling and editing Native language dictionaries and pronunciation guides. He has also conducted extensive interviews with survivors of the Indian residential school system. He knows his topic—and knows tidy, happy endings wouldn’t be appropriate. As publicity materials for Stealing Indians say, “This is a work of fiction. Every word is true.”

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August 01, 2016

A Foundling’s Journey of Discovery

Amy Snow: A Novel, by Tracy Rees, (Simon & Schuster), 576 pages, released 7 June, 2016

If you’ve hit the summer reading doldrums, you’re in luck. Amy Snow is a delightful read: one of those long, suspenseful novels peopled with characters you’d like to meet in real life.

The Amy Snow of the title is a foundling unwillingly admitted to the wealthy Vennaway household in the mid-1800s, after being found by eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway. Despised by the Vennaway parents, Amy has spent her life as a servant of sorts, but Aurelia adores her. When Aurelia is diagnosed with a deadly heart condition, she insists on having Amy as a full-time companion. After Aurelia’s death, Amy is evicted from the Vennaway home having received only a small bequest of £10. This is where the novel begins.

As Amy leaves the Vennaway home, she’s stopped by a local school teacher, who presents her with a small wooden box left with him before Aurelia’s death. A note inside the box explains that Aurelia has arranged a “treasure hunt” for Amy, a more complex version of a game they played as children. Thus begins Amy’s journey, which has her traveling across England. Over her travels, Amy comes to know both Aurelia and herself in ways she’s never imagined. She makes friends at each step in her journey, and many of these friends have additional clues from Aurelia to pass on to Amy.

The novel is a bit predictable: Amy, of course, solves Aurelia’s puzzle; she attends balls; she’s also courted by a pair of men, both quite charming—at least on the surface. Nonetheless, the writing is quite good and the novel has enough uncertainty to keep readers turning pages. When you need a long read with lovable characters, Amy Snow may be just the thing.

 

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July 29, 2016

Tales of the Weird

Dark Pursuits: A Jonathan Harker Thriller Omnibus, by Tony Evans, (Endeavour Press), 229 pages, currently available as an ebook only

While the reviews of Dark Pursuits are mixed, I found this title a fun read. Yes, it’s not great literature, but it is a series of small, supernatural romps with characters—Jonathan and Mina Harker and Professor VanHelsing—that Dracula fans will be glad to meet again.

The underlying concept is clever. Having rid the world of Dracula, Jonathan is now working for a law firm handling “cases of a certain sort”; in other words, legal problems with a supernatural twist. These cases are engaging, though not particularly complex, and the three included here can be read separately, making for several nights’ worth of bedtime reading.

If you’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read that first. Then, if you enjoyed it, have a go at Dark Pursuits to make the fun last a little longer.

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July 17, 2016

Family and Revolution in Egypt

Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, by Yasmine El Rashidi, (Tim Duggan Books, Random House), 192 pages, release date 28 June, 2016

Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer is actually a chronicle of several summers. We see the young woman at the center of the book across three decades: as a child, as a college student, and as an adult. The common threads in her life are boredom, the confusing nature of Egyptian politics and protest, and the secrets within her own family. The novel ends during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Readers sense the hope of this historical moment, but also realize how quickly that hope will fade for many Egyptians.

El Rashidi’s prose is exquisite both in what it communicates and what it withholds. That she can tell such a rich tale in a novel under two hundred pages is a testament to her ability to choose the right word, the right sentence—and to avoid unnecessary embellishment. Chronicle of a Last Summer is, in my estimation, one of the best books released this year, rewarding for its style, its characters, and its historical insight.

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July 15, 2016

Melville and Hawthorne and the Making of Moby Dick

The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel, by Mark Beauregard, (Viking), 288 pages, release date 14 June, 2016

Mark Beauregard’s The Whale tells an imagined version of the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. That the two were neighbors and on-again, off-again friends is fact. That the two shared a homoerotic attraction is, if not quite fact, likely. Beauregard imagines the two men in a sort of 1850s “Brokeback Mountain,” with Melville embracing the pair’s shared feelings and Hawthorne denying that these feelings exist. In doing this, Beauregard draws on the actual correspondence between the men, weaving the texts of their letters into his narrative.

This novel is simultaneously heart-breaking and humorous. Melville, who dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, longs for a closeness that Hawthorne is unable to offer. Melville gives himself over completely to his attraction to Hawthorne, pursuing the older writer as he writes the story of Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Melville can be endearing, maddening, even obsessive. Hawthorne’s character is less well-developed, though Beauregard does a capable job of painting a picture of Hawthorne that makes Melville’s attraction understandable.

Reading Beauregard’s version of these two tales—one of unfulfilled love, the other of the creation of a ground-breaking novel—is a pleasure to read, both perceptive and believable. It also provides a lively portrait of the American literary scene and the midpoint of the 19th Century.

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July 13, 2016

Self-Discovery in 1980

Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss, (Gallery/Scout Press, Simon & Schuster), 336 pages, release date 5 April, 2016.

Tuesday Nights in 1980 was released in April, so you may not find it on the “New Fiction” table of your local independent bookstore, but it’s definitely worth seeking out on the shelves. This is a character-driven novel—though there’s plenty of plot as well. An art critic, an artist, and a young woman new to New York City (the novel’s setting) are gradually drawn together through connections of both affection and conflict. As we get to know these characters, they are also getting to know themselves, which makes for a satisfying, voyage of discovery. This is Molly Prentiss’ first novel, and I hope there will be many more.

If you’re interested in art, if you’re interested in character-driven fiction, in you’re interested in reflecting on life in the 80s, this is a book you should move to the top of your to-read list.

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July 10, 2016

A Mystery of Murder and Prejudice Set in Elizabethan England and Inspired by Fact

Frobisher’s Savage: An Elizabethan Murder Mystery, by Leonard Tourney, (Endeavor Press), 245 pages, release date 1 April, 2016

In May, I reviewed Leonard Tourney’s The Player’s Boy Is Dead, a murder mystery set in Elizabethan England. That book was interesting, but not completely successful. Frobisher’s Savage is another volume in Tourney’s series and offers a more satisfying tale than did The Player’s Boy Is Dead.

Frobisher’s Savage has its root in fact: in 1576, explorer Martin Frobisher returned to England from a voyage in which he claimed he has reached Cathay (he’d actually reached Canada). As proofs of his success he brought back evidence both mineral and human—black rocks that he claimed contained gold and a “savage” he named Adam Nemo.

Tourney’s mystery places Nemo as a servant on a country estate and provides him with a friend, Nicholas, a deaf-mute boy living on a nearby farm. When Nicholas’s parents and two of his siblings are murdered, suspicion quickly comes to rest on these two outsiders. Neither Nemo nor Nicholas has a real motive, but that is less important that the fact of their differences from the local population.

The plotting of this novel is solid, but it’s the characters and their perceptions of one another that stand out. Tourney’s imagined Nemo is a fascinating character, a man who has had little control over the events of his own life and who cannot remember much of his own story pre-England. If you’re curious about social and racial hierarchies in Elizabethan England, you will find this title a thought-provoking read.

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July 08, 2016

A Valuable Addition to Tudor Biography

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas, by Alison Weir, (Ballentine Books), 576 pages, release date 12 January, 2016

For readers of Tudor history, a new title by Alison Weir is always welcome. She has a knack for writing prose that is both engaging and densely packed with information. Her latest subject, Lady Margaret Douglas, usually appears in Tudor histories as a secondary character, an endlessly scheming irritant with whom Elizabeth I must deal repeatedly during her reign.

A niece of Henry VIII, conceived in Scotland, but born in England, Lady Margaret had a strong claim to the English throne—particularly in the minds of those who viewed Elizabeth I as a bastard and who resented Eliabeth’s harsh treatment of English Catholics. Lady Margaret was quite proud of her pedigree and was determined to rise to the royal position she felt she deserved.

Lady Margaret never ruled, but she managed to wed her son, Lord Darnley, to Mary Queen of Scots and that marriage produced a son, Scotland’s James VI. Lady Margaret outlived Darnley and fought to maintain influence over her grandson, but with little success.

Ultimately, however, Lady Douglas achieved her ambition. Her grandson King James VI and I of Scotland and England inherited the crown from Elizabeth I. It is to her, not to Elizabeth, that subsequent English rulers trace their ancestry.

Weir’s biography gives readers a chance to view Lady Margaret’s life in terms of her own goals, a new view of a character usually depicted in terms of her relationships to other, better known, Tudor figures. If you haven’t yet read this title (I confess I had to wait to read it until I finished my academic year and could devote the necessary time to Lady Margaret) and you enjoy reading Tudor history, move this title to the top of your reading list.

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