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Now this is a book on family history you don't find too often! Hannah Nordhaus has roots that go far back in New Mexico history and her great great grandparents owned one of the finer homes in Santa Fe. Now a hotel (and out of the family's hands), the hotel has been famously haunted for decades supposedly by Nordhaus's gg grandmother, Julia Schuster Staab who died in 1896. American Ghost is the story of how the author went looking for Julia, both her ghost and her truth.

German Jews who relocate to Santa Fe is a pretty interesting family history without much added to it, but Nordhaus finds out a lot more as she looks for the reasons why Julia left Germany. Because the Staab family was so prominent in New Mexico history, newspaper coverage is abundant and there are also letters, diary entries and some personal histories along with general records that Nordhaus is able to mine for information. She also goes in a different direction as well and tries to communicate with Julia's ghost.

At first, the "ghostbusting" chapters seemed odd to me, like the author was padding the narrative. But slowly she makes it clear that her attempts to reach out to the ghost, (and find out of there even is a ghost), are also a bit about finding herself or perhaps finding how she feels about her ancestors. These chapters also provide a bit humor which is welcome as Julia's life has some truly tragic downturns and, as expected, not all of the family left Germany so there is some enormous sadness found there.

I have read several books about finding your family but this is the first one where a family member is a famous ghost which is really fairly outrageous when you think about it. I will admit I am envious of Nordhaus however--she has so much family history to fall back on, such a solid place to start from and I have only the tiniest shreds in comparison. But that envy did not reduce my ability to enjoy American Ghost a lot or glean some tips from her search.

Leanna Renee Hieber is an author who I find both wildly appealing and sometimes frustrating. I read and enjoyed very much one of her previous series which began with The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. Her gaslamp fantasies excel at world building and have beguiling characters placed in intriguing and challenging situations. Sometimes though, I feel overwhelmed by so many people and so many things going on. It's not that the plots are dense but rather somewhat frenetic. This is not a bad thing but can be exasperating (at least for me). But it doesn't keep me from going back for more from Hieber and so I was quite pleased to dive into her latest book, The Eterna Files.

In the wake of President Lincoln's assassination, Clara Templeton sets in motion events to find the secret to immortality. Flash forward 17 years and the American team pursuing this goal is mysteriously (almost magically) killed. Clara seeks to find out what happened but soon finds herself in a race against the British who are looking for their own answers as their competing team has also been killed.

Hieber splits the narrative primarily between Clara in New York City. and Harold Spire and Rose Everhart in London. Each side with their own trusted Scooby squads, they follow clues and try to find out what happened, all the while suspecting each other of the nefarious deeds. Of course (of course!!) there is more to it than that, but I'm sure Hieber will bring the groups together in the next installment and hopefully they will join forces sooner rather than later.

All the characters are good, especially Clara and Rose, who are smart and talented on their own while also realistically dealing with the gender politics of the day. Everyone else is quirky as all get out which makes sense as Hieber excels at quirky. There's all kinds of paranormal bits going on from mediums and clairvoyants to Voodoo. There are also class differences, a few jerks and some PTSD from lots of childhood trauma. So far, no romance but hints of some to come which would fit well in the layers of this mystery/thriller/drama.

So yeah, The Eterna Files is off to a bang-up start and shows Hieber doing what she does best yet again. I'll be back for the sequel; I just can't manage to stay away.

Because I continue to have an unquenchable attraction to big sweeping biographies of dysfunctional British families (I have no idea where this came from), I was delighted to have The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff arrive at my door. (How in the heck Harper Collins knew I would want this book I will never know.)

Set in the period between the wars and forward (although there is some discussion of WWI as well), The Mad Boy tells the story of Lord Berners, one of those spectacularly unusual Brits (they dyed the birds at his estate in pastels as decorations!!!!) of a certain era who happened to be gay and fell hard for Robert Heber-Percy, a younger aristocrat who liked both men and women, lived life in a crazy near-suicidal way and was really really good looking.

And then there's Jennifer, who married Robert, promplty had his child and all of them lived (for a time*) at Berner's estate. Together. While all of English society wondered what the heck was going on.

It's not as salacious as you think (no wild orgies!) but more complicated and full of parties and marriages and divorces and things suspected but left unsaid and parties. LOTS OF PARTIES.

Here's what gets me about England and why I find so many aspects of its society so unbelievable:

The rules of primogeniture has kept together the huge fortunes of English lords; it has also formed the class system. It is the great distinction between the English aristocracy and any other; whereas abroad every member of a noble family is noble, in England non is except the head of the family. The sons and daughters may enjoy courtesy titles but as a rule the younger offspring of even the richest lords receive comparatively little money. Younger sons have thus habitually been left without money, property or title, often without the skills to acquire them and, above all, without belonging to the place they care most about. As clergymen, soldiers, sailors and resentful ne'er-do-wells, these high-born outcasts litter the pages of nineteenth-century English novels, with their hopeless attempts to make a way in the unfriendly world and their irresponsible sprees of adventuring.

So, while the The Mad Boy is a lot about people of the upper class having a certain life before WW2 and that how much that changed after WW2, it's also about a lot of people who weren't the first-born sons who were cast out of the lives they had known, the homes the loved and the lifestyles they were born to enjoy. It's.....well, it's crazy. You literally can never go home again and yet you also aren't supposed to (or prepared to) go get a job somewhere either.

Plus, you had parties with dyed birds because that kind of thing is just what you do!!

Zinovieff has done an enormous amount of research for this book and for all that there are a zillion names dropped, (visitors included all the Mitfords, Cecil Beaton, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador DalĂ­ and on and on), she keeps it well organized and easily sucks you in. (The pictures are stunning!!!) Consider it a guilty pleasure maybe, but a real eye-opener as well.

*Shockingly, the marriage did not last but Jennifer went on to marry Alex Ross and then live for a while in a cult before she really settled down.

For more see The Guardian review.

[Photo from the book cover, taken by Cecil Beaton. L-R, Lord Berners, Robert Heber-Percy holding daughter Victoria, wife Jennifer on right.]

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