Book reviews: A photographer sees dead people in ‘Shutter’; ‘After the Hurricane’ dredges up mysteries

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‘Shutter’ by Ramona Emerson. Soho Crime, 312 pages, $25.95

Native American author Ramona Emerson immediately establishes herself as a new talent with her engrossing debut “Shutter,” which combines a story of Navajo culture, coming of age, mysticism, family ties and crime detection.

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“Shutter” introduces Rita Todacheene, a photographer for the past five years with the Crime Scene Specialist Unit of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, police department. Rita is considered “an asset” as her work is highly prized by most of the police detectives because her extremely detailed photographs have often exposed clues that others have missed. Rita relies on technique that she basically taught herself but also on her sixth sense. Rita sees dead people and is often visited by crime victims’ ghosts.

It’s an ability that she has to keep quiet because the police detectives would not take her work seriously, and this revelation may even taint cases that have been solved. Rita is accustomed to keeping her talents to herself. As a youngster, her behavior and “imaginary friends” made other children afraid of her and ostracized her from her Navajo community; her loving grandmother was fearful others would think she was insane.

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Rita also has questioned her own sanity as some of the ghosts push her mental health. In “Shutter,” a gruesome death erroneously ruled a suicide pushes Rita’s lucidity, making her a target of criminals.

Emerson balances Rita’s abilities with a tightly focused plot, while keeping her visions believable. Never does the reader think Rita is hallucinating but that this sixth sense is part of who she is. Emerson shows Rita’s lifelong struggles with racism and feeling different. Her abilities make her feel alone as how some people, including several co-workers, view her Navajo heritage.

Rita’s intriguing personality should make for a long series. Emerson definitely is an author to watch.

‘After the Hurricane’ by Leah Franqui. Morrow, 368 pages, $27.99

Anyone who has lived through a hurricane knows the physical and emotional destruction left in the wake, and how the once idyllic area can actually seem peaceful amid the chaos left behind. Leah Franqui skillfully explores what’s lost and what’s left behind in the engrossing “After the Hurricane.”

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Graduate student Elena Vega is learning first-hand the natural and mental havoc left after a major storm when she travels from New York City to Puerto Rico searching for her father who seems to have disappeared.

Santiago Vega was born in Puerto Rico, but raised in New York City where he became a successful attorney. A profoundly unhappy man, Santiago has spent a lifetime pushing away people, including his daughter who he has often envied, even when she was a child. He also has refused to divulge anything about his past. As a result, Elena has few good memories of her father and has inherited his legacy of avoiding relationships.

Now more than four months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Santiago seems to have disappeared from the island where he has been living in a historic home he bought.

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Elena hopes that finding her father will somehow repair their relationship. She becomes a private investigator of sorts as she uncovers her father’s background of poverty, violence and mental health issues.

“After the Hurricane” quickly evolves into Elena’s search for Puerto Rican heritage and how this relates to her relationship with her father. The hurricane becomes a metaphor as it dredges up memories and emotions Elena thought buried. “The storm blew through the island and through her.”

Franqui moves her story throughout the island, offering a vivid travelogue of Puerto Rico, from San Juan neighborhoods to the countryside and small villages. Franqui illustrates how Puerto Rico’s politics, culture and its role as a territory have shaped the island.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

 

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