The Hunter by Jennifer Herrera

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Maude’s voice was far away, the way the chime of a bell can feel distant even if it’s right in front of you. “You’re too late,” she said to me, to no one. “Every last one of them is dead.”

“Every gift comes at a price.”

NYPD detective Leigh O’Donnell is on double-secret suspension. Her prospects of returning to her job are about as real as Dean Wormer ever authorizing the return of Delta Tau Chi. On top of that, she is newly separated from her (boss) husband, the person who suspended her. He could not understand why she would pull her gun on a fellow officer, allowing a caught suspect to escape. Thankfully, her brother, Ronan (Ro), gets in touch. Seems that back home in Copper Falls, Ohio, there had been a very suspicious triple death. And they would love it if an actual NYC detective could pop by for a look-see. Leigh takes the opportunity to skip town for a while, bringing along her four-year-old daughter, Simone.

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Jennifer Herrera – image from her site

Who says you can’t go home again? Oh, Thomas Wolfe, in his novel of that name. Ok. Fine, whatever. Well, Leigh gives it a go anyway, taking the opportunity to introduce Simone to Leigh’s uncles, to Ro, and to the town in which she had grown up. It will come as no shock that author Jennifer Herrera spent much of her childhood in a small Ohio town.

For the first five years of my life, I lived in a trailer park, which, while not economically diverse, was diverse in just about every other way. So when my family moved to a small town in rural Ohio, I wasn’t prepared for how alien I would feel there. Everyone was related. They all looked alike. They went to the same church. They held the same beliefs. If you’re not from there, it’s unbelievable. But those places still exist.


When I was a kid, all I knew was that I didn’t fit in and wanted to get out. When I got older, I started to wonder what it was about this community that made them so afraid of letting the outside world in. – from The Book Club Kit

Herrera comes up with a few possibilities about that, most of them less than complimentary to the residents of her fictionalized version. This is a place with secrets. Pretty tough to make any progress finding out the truth when you are struggling upstream against a torrent of lies.

The first-person story-telling is mostly linear with some flashbacks. Added to the presenting mystery of what happened to these three young men are Leigh’s personal struggles. She wants to save her endangered marriage. She wants to resurrect her career as a detective. But she also wants to get a better handle on who she really is. For better or worse, this Podunk town is a part of her, even if she had left it years before, intending never to return. She has loving family here, in addition to painful memories. This was once a true home for her. Could it ever be that for her again? It would be great for her daughter to have a larger family tree than the few branches Leigh can offer her in NY. So, Leigh is engaging in a journey of self-discovery. But it is also a quest. You can tick off the Campbellian stages, as our hero does battle with dark forces and descends to the equivalent of hell, fending off monsters in order to reach her goal. One of her uncles even thinks of her as a classic Irish hero of legend, Fionn MacCumhaill – aka Finn McCool. The uncles serve multiple roles, connection to and intel on locals, child care for Simone, a warm, familial homey element, and comic relief.

Imagery abounds. Herrera clearly enjoys playing with archetypal images. Snakes put in appearances. There is an apple orchard that, when paired with the snakes, certainly gives one an image of a corrupted Eden. A house tucked away out of sight makes one wonder if there might be someone inside preparing to cook children. A flock of birds massing to protect one damaged member has got to mean something, right?

Shrines figure large. There are said to be shrines in the caves under the waterfall, likely remnants of indigenous people who were driven out by colonizers. The people of the town seriously want to keep their town the way it is, preserved in amber, a sort of shrine to their past, to themselves. Herrera includes a fun reference to a relevant Twilight Zone episode to bolster the image. The title of the book comes in for some use. Early on a character refers to detective Leigh as a hunter. An archetypal native personage figures large. There is even a sly reference to hunter green.

There are peculiarities that grab our attention and demand exploration. For example, threes abound here. Maud had three brothers who perished together a lifetime ago. There were the multiple deaths seven years back of three young men of eighteen. The latest mortal hat trick included men in their twenties, contemporaries of the prior three. Interestingly, the last two trifectas all turned up in the pool at the bottom of the same waterfall. Curious, no? And Leigh’s mother had three brothers, the uncles of this tale. What’s up with all the treys?

Obviously, poking through all this imagery stuff, looking for connections that may or may not be real, digging down into rabbit holes as they appear (What is that rabbit late for, and where is he going?) is great fun. But, pleasurable as that is, the book would not succeed if we did not feel a connection to the lead. Not to worry. Leigh has her issues, but she is definitely relatable.

On the down side, I found it a bit tough to accept that Leigh would do what she did in NYC for the reason that is offered.

The supporting cast is a mixed crew. Some stand out, like the elderly, mysterious Maud. Onetime bf and now reporter, Mason Vogel, is a confusing foil for Leigh. Her brother, Ronan, is a likeable partner. The uncles are fun. Most stand back, as supporting characters do. Means to an end, whether advancing the plot or offering atmospherics. The notion of history, both the immediate and personal history of individuals, and the larger, longer cultural history of a place, and its hold on the present, for good or ill, is palpable. The procedural elements are well done, and the explanations make a dark sort of sense. The lead is someone we can pull for. The Hunter is a fun read, an engaging mystery that will keep you well-entertained, and keep your gray cells firing for the duration.

…most of the businesses in town—the grocery store, the antiques market, the candy shop—they’re all owned by the same seven families. The Wagners are the majority share, sure, but this town? It’s all one big family business.”
“That’s insane.”
“Not really. I’m sure it’s like that in a lot of places. See, those seven families have never left. Some individuals left, sure, but most of them stayed. People give their houses to their kids or their grandkids. Sometimes nephews and nieces. But it’s rare for them to sell to outsiders. Especially the houses close to the center of town. There are ordinances forbidding new construction. We don’t get many new people here.”

Review posted – 2/3/23

Publication date – 1/10/23

I received an eARE of The Hunter from Putnam in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Oh! Murder – Interview: Jennifer Herrera, The Hunter
—–The Mystery of Writing – The Hunter: Debut Thriller

Items of Interest from the author
—–Book Club Kit
—–Crimereads – MEN ARE THE MOST LIKELY VICTIMS OF HOMICIDE. WHY DO CRIME WRITERS KILL SO MANY WOMEN?

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

—–Discovering Ireland – Fionn MacCumhaill – aka Finn McCool of Irish legends
—–Twilight Zone Fandom – The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine
—–ProWritingAid – Deep Dive: Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”
—–Wiki on Animal House

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Thriller

Blaze me a Sun by Christoffer Carson

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I raped a woman in a car. It’s near Tiarp Farm. A brief silence followed. Then: I’m going to do it again. Bye.

Monstrousness was always sleeping right beneath the surface, just out of sight.

1986 – A terrible crime in an out-of-the-way place. A young woman is brutally raped and murdered in her own car. It might have gotten a bit more national attention had there not been another crime that night, the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The attention would have been merited, as the killer taunted the police with a phone call, boasting of his deed and promising more of the same. He will become known as Tiarp Man. The case falls to Sven Jörgensson. It will consume him.

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Christoffer Carlsson– image from Ahlander Agency

Blaze Me a Sun has a frame structure. It opens in 2019, with a writer looking into the famous crimes that had taken place in Halland County, in southern Sweden. He is a local, who has been away for a long time, but felt a need to return home. Those who knew him as a kid call him Moth. The primary story is the one that Moth researches and tells. Then we go back to Moth for the final fifth (or so) of the novel.

The book is divided into multiple periods. The first (inside the frame) is 1986, when the first crimes take place. Next is 1988 when the national police take over the investigation. In 1991, there are more violent crimes. Is it the same person? 2019 is when Moth is up front as our narrator, at the beginning and end of the novel.

I was reminded of the true-crime format, in which the host/narrator walks you through all the details of one or multiple crimes, then offers the reveal at the end. But the first-person perspective of the frame is replaced in the core here by a third-person-omniscient perspective. At the back end of the story, the narrator takes center stage again, leading us through his further inquiries.

Mostly, we follow Sven as he looks into several murders and one near-killing. As with the Palme murder, finding the perpetrator is a fraught, frustrating job. Evidence is scarce and the struggle to identify the perpetrator wears down the patience of both Sven and his superiors over time. He is an intrepid detective, someone who takes his responsibility to the victims and their families to heart. He thinks of them every day, even long after he is no longer on the case, even after he is retired. Sven is an easy character to pull for, mostly. A white knight on a worthy quest, but there is tarnish on that armor as well. Sven is far from purely benign.

Even heroes can make mistakes. The dream of a spotless past is, after all, only a dream. No one makes it through unmarked. We have to learn to live with it. If we can.

One element that struck me was that we come to think of the victims by their first names, as Sven does. It gives them a bit of extra presence that enhances our feel for Sven’s struggles, his determination to see justice done.

Even Sven’s son, Vidar, as an adult, gets caught up in the complications, the reverberations of the case. Families are a major focus of the book. The crimes have both immediate and long-term impact on the people who must survive the horrific loss of a loved one. Single crimes echo through time to generate multiple waves of misery and destruction. People come to learn things about those to whom they are the closest. You can see why some folks might be jarred learning those things. The truth doesn’t just hurt, it can break your psychic bones, change your direction in life, make you into a different person than you were. Sven’s relationship with Vidar is both loving and strained, a source of tension that carries through the story.

Carlsson links the Tiarp Man murders to the Palme assassination thematically, rather than concretely.

When the prime minister was shot and the shooter was never more than a shadow heading up the stairs into the dim light of David Bagares Gata, it unleashed something. Distaste. A rage that no one could quite control.
From opinion pages and kitchen tables came an indignant clamor over police and politics, criminality and immigrants, the wretched creature that had become Sweden and one’s own reflection in the mirror. It was clear now. The country could have come through anything unscathed—anything but this. The youthful boy with his smiling eyes, a mother-in-law’s dream who turned out to be a murdering monster up there in the north: Maybe that’s us.
Of course this sort of thing leaves its mark on you. Of course it marks a country. How could it not?

Tiarp Man personified that for this part of Sweden. Things that remained unresolved for far too long. A sense of community comfort that was forever disrupted.

There is no real magical realism at work in this book, but Carlsson does offer up an omen in the form of a local superstition.

As spring arrived, the village came to life. Everything seemed to shimmer, and the colors grew so vivid. Sweet days awaited.
The first white wagtail sighting also brought a moment of uncertainty. We learned to be very cautious. If you saw the bird from the back, which you almost always did, it meant happiness and good fortune. But on those rare instances in which you first happened to catch sight of it from the front, and got a good look at the black spot on its tiny breast, it was a bad omen: Misfortune and sorrow lay ahead.

Carlsson knows a bit about police work and crime. Mom was the Swedish equivalent of a 911 dispatcher. And the author’s day job is putting his Criminology PhD to use as a college professor, and writer of professional papers on criminology. His father was an auto mechanic, a job he hands off to Moth’s father in the book. Carlsson is from the area in which these crimes take place. I suppose only those who know the area can opine on whether he presented it accurately.

Criminology taught me the rough brutal truths about crime: it’s dirty, bloody, messy, painful, raw, costs a lot, and, sometimes, it’s beyond meaning in any reasonable sense of that term. – From Crimereads article

I had only two real issues with the book. There is a gap between some of the crimes that is not really explained, and an authorial disinclination to go into the killer’s motivations. If you are ok with that, then this one should satisfy. It enhances a procedural mystery with a look at family, questioning how well we really know those closest to us, and the limits of what one might do for loved ones. It adds a take on the sense of the place and the times. Best of all, there are some excellent twists.

The one she asks for light is also the one who will bring darkness. Like the face of Janus.

Review posted – 01/20/23

Publication date – 01/03/23 – (English translation) – It was originally published in Swedish in 2021

I received a digital ARE of Blaze Me a Sun from Hogarth in return for a fair review. Tack, gott folk, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Blaze Me A Sun is Carlsson’s ninth book and American debut.

Interview
—–Penguin Random House – Book Club Kit – there is an excellent interview in this
—–Booktopia – An award-winning crime writer’s advice for aspiring authors. by Anastasia Hadjidemetri – from 2017

Songs/Music
—–Sting – Russians – noted in chapter 23

Items of Interest
—–Wikipedia – Assassination of Olof Palme
—–Oregon State University – frame structure in novels

Items of Interest from the author
—–Google Scholar – Carlsson’s criminology writings
—–Crimereads – 1/11/2023 – With the Dead

Could the worst of crimes be devoid of meaning? Strange things happen all the time, every day, and we don’t think too much of them because they don’t affect us that deeply. They are just “coincidences” or something else, depending on what you believe in. Criminology taught me the rough brutal truths about crime: it’s dirty, bloody, messy, painful, raw, costs a lot, and, sometimes, it’s beyond meaning in any reasonable sense of that term.

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Cosmogenesis by Brian Thomas Swimme

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…it feels today that we are in the middle of a profound transformation of humanity.

We don’t live in a cosmos. We live in a cosmogenesis, a universe that is becoming, a universe that established its order in each era and then transcends that order to establish a new order.

Cosmos – The universe seen as a well-ordered whole; from the Greek word kosmos ‘order, ornament, world, or universe’, so called by Pythagoras or his disciples from their view of its perfect order and arrangement. – from Oxford reference

Genesis – Hebrew Bereshit (“In the Beginning”), the first book of the Bible. Its name derives from the opening words: “In the beginning….” Genesis narrates the primeval history of the world – from the Encyclopedia Britannica

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Brian Thomas Swimme – image from Journey of the Universe

So, Cosmogenesis means, at its root, the beginning of everything. Diverse cultures have come up with diverse understandings of how everything came to be. Where Swimme differs is in seeing the genesis, the beginning, the creation of everything as an ongoing process, not a one-off in deep history.

Cosmogenesis tracks Swimme’s journey from math professor to spokesman for a movement that seeks to rejoin science and spirituality. The stations along this route, which runs from 1968 to 1983, consist of people he considers great minds. He gushes like a Swiftie with closeup tickets to an Eras Tour show over several of these genius-level individuals, while relying on his analytical capacity to note shortcomings in some of the theories some others propose. Swimme mixes his approach a bit. It is in large measure a memoir, with a focus on his intellectual (and spiritual) growth, along with descripti0ns of the places where he lived, taught, and studied, and the people who inspired him, providing some background to the theories and ovbservations to which he is exposed.

A mathematics PhD, with a long and diverse teaching history, he grounds his work in the scientific. But he does not separate the scientific from the spiritual, from the human. In his view, we are all a part of the ongoing evolution of everything, noting that every subatomic part that make up every atom in our bodies, in our world, was present at the Biggest Bang, then was further refined by the lesser bangs of supernovas manufacturing what became our constituent parts. Even today, we bathe, wallow, bask, and breathe in radiation from that original event. It may have occurred fourteen billion years ago, but in a measurable way it is happening still. And we all remain a part of it.

There is a piece of Swimme’s material-cum-spiritual notion that I found very appealing. I have experienced an ecstatic state while perceiving beauty in the world. On telling my son about one such, I remarked that it was like a religious experience. He answered, “why like?” Swimme recruits like experiences to bolster the connection between the humanly internal and the eternal of the cosmos.

Bear in mind that Swimme grew up in a Catholic tradition, which clearly impressed him. There is a strong incense scent of religiosity to his work. Not saying that Cosmogenesis is a religion, but I am not entirely certain it is not.

As a child I had learned that the Mass was where the sacred lived.

I had a very different response to the religious world to which I was exposed as a child through twelve years of Catholic education. There was no connection for me between the Mass and the sacred, whatever that was. Mass represented mostly a burden, a mandatory exercise, communicating nothing about layers of experience beyond the material, while offering hard evidence of the power of institutions to control how I spent my time. I did not, at the time, understand the community building and reinforcing aspect to this weekly tribal ritual, separate from the religious content.

I believe that what we think of as spiritual or spectral is the reality that lies beyond our perceptual bandwidth. The ancients did not understand lightning, so imagined a god hurling bolts. With scientific understanding of lightning, Zeus is cast from an imagined home on Mount Olympus to the confines of cultural history. Science expands our effective, if not necessarily our physical, biological bandwidth, and thus captures, making understandable, realities once thought the domain of imagined gods. But what of feeling? The ecstatic state I experience when witnessing the beauty of the world, is that a purely biological state, comprised of hormones and DNA? Or do we assign to that feeling, which can be difficult to explain, a higher meaning because of our inability to define it precisely enough? And, in doing so, are we not following in the path of the ancient Greeks who assigned to extra-human beings responsibility for natural events? So, I am not sure I am buying in to Swimme’s views.

It is, though, something, to pique the interest of people like myself who have rejected most forms of organized religion, particularly those that focus on a human-like all-powerful being, (see George Carlin’s routine re this. I’m with George.) but who hold open a lane for a greater, a different understanding of all reality. Where is the line between the material and the spiritual? How did we come to be here? Evolution provides plenty to explain that. But we still get back to a linear understanding of time as an impasse. If the (our) universe began with the big bang, then what came before? Einstein showed with his special theory of relativity that time is not so fixed a concept as we’d thought. Things operate at different speeds, relative to each other, depending on distance and speed. Who is to say that there might not be more fungability to our understanding of time, maybe even radically so? In a way, this is what Swimme is on about, ways of looking at our broader reality, at our origins and ongoing evolution, (not just the evolution of our species, but of the universe itself) through other, more experiential perspectives, (a new Gnosticism?) while still including science.

Humans have expressed their faith in a great variety of symbols, many of which have inspired me at one time or another. But today, if you ask for the foundation of my faith, I would say the stone cliffs of the Hudson River Palisades.

Overall I found this book brain candy of the first order. Take it as a survey-course primer for the theory he propounds. There are many videos available on-line for those interested in going beyond Cosmo 101. So, Is cosmogenesis one of the ten greatest ideas in human history as is claimed here? That is above my pay grade. Some of the notions presented here seemed a bit much, but there was enough that was worth considering that made this a satisfying, intriguing read. Suffice it to say that it is a fascinating take on, well, everything, and can be counted on to give your gray cells, comprised of materials that have been around for 14 billion years, a hearty jiggle at the very least.

Everything is up in the air. We are living in a deranged world where nihilism dominates every major state. The contest today is for the next world philosophy.

Review posted – January 13, 2023

Publication date – November 15, 2022

I received a hardcover of Cosmogenesis from Counterpoint in return for a fair review.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Twitter and Facebook do not appear to have ever been used you might also try

Interviews
—–Deeptime Network – Brian Swimme — What’s Next? Planetary Mind and the Future – video – 1:12:41 – from 6:50
—–Sue Speaks – SUE Speaks Podcast: Searching for Unity in Everything – podcast – 31:27

Items of Interest from the author
—– The Third Story of the Universe
—–A Great Leap in Being – 28:56
—–Human Energy – Introduction to the Noosphere: The Planetary Minds
—–Journey of the Universe

Items of Interest
—–San Francisco Chronicle – Science doesn’t cover it all, author Brian Thomas Swimme explains
—–
George Carlin on religion

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

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“Come.” John Pinten turns and puts his palm against the hull. “Do as I do.”
Mayken crawls forward and puts her palm next to his, flat against the planks. She sees how much smaller and cleaner her hand is. Too clean for a cabin boy. But John Pinten doesn’t seem to notice.
“She’s all that lies between us and the deep dark fathoms of the sea.” John Pinten’s voice grows quiet, grave. “Can you feel the ocean pulling at the nail heads, pressing against the planks, prizing the caulking? The water wants in.”

Old superstitions are rife now. The sailors lead the way. Words must be chanted over knots. Messmates must be served in a particular order. A change of wind direction must be greeted. Portents are looked for and translated. The cut of the wake noted. The shape of clouds debated…A lamp taken down into the hold will now burn green. Monstrous births plague the onboard animals. Their issue is hastily thrown overboard to prevent alarm. Eyeless lambs. Mouthless piglets. A litter of rabbits joined together, a mass of heads and limbs. The gardener harvests fork-tailed carrots from his boxed plot outside the hen coop.
“It’s the way of long journeys,” says Creesje. “They alter what people think and see.”

1628 – Mayken van der Heuvel heads out on a long, exciting, but very dangerous adventure. She is setting sail on the grandest ship of the era, the Batavia, to a place by the same name, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Well, in 1628, anyway. Today, we know it as Jakarta, Indonesia. Her journey is not being undertaken by choice, though. Mayken’s mother died giving birth to a child not her husband’s. The girl is being sent to her father, accompanied by a nursemaid, the kindly, but very superstitious, Imke. Mayken is nine years old.

There are many layers to this child: undergarments, middle garments, and top garments. Mayken is made of pale skin and small white teeth and fine fair hair and linen and lace and wool and leather. There are treasures sewn into the seams of her clothing, small and valuable, like her.
Mayken has a father she’s never met. Her father is a merchant who lives in a distant land where the midday sun is fierce enough to melt a Dutch child.

We follow Mayken’s adventures on this months-long journey across the world. But we know from the beginning that the ship will not complete its trip.

1989 – A nine-year-old boy has just endured a journey of his own.

Gil is made of pale skin and red hair and thrifted clothes. His shoes, worn down on the outsides, lend an awkward camber to his walk. Old ladies like him, they think he’s old-fashioned. Truck drivers like him because he takes an interest in their rigs. Everyone else finds him weird.

He never knew his father, and Mom kept them on the move all of his brief life, until her death. Gil has been sent to live with his crusty fisherman grandfather, Joss. To the place off the west coast of Australia where the off-course Batavia met its inglorious end. Researchers have been retrieving bits of the ship and its contents. The island is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl, Little May.

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Jess Kidd – image from The Bookseller – by Cordula Tremi

Kidd learned about the Batavia while casting about for a subject for her next novel. I will leave you to explore the real-life story here in Wikipedia and in the Sea Museum site.

Mayken and Gil’s stories are told in alternating chapters. The duration of their experiences, however, is not the same. Mayken’s time on the Batavia is considerably longer than Gil’s, on what is now Beacon Island. Kidd handles this disparity well, so that difference is not obvious.

Mayken is a particularly curious and adventurous little girl, exploring and experiencing the ship with a range of partners, despite her caretakers preferring for her to be a demure, proper young lady. She has a talent for gaining trust and affection from those around her, both children and adults. It comes in handy. Being a child, she carries some odd notions with her, and is susceptible to things that challenge credulity. She is convinced that there is a mythical beast in the deep hold of the ship. (The eel creature was an ancient monster and foe of all humankind. Its name was Bullebak.) Is the evidence she spies of its existence sharp perception or childish imagination? Being the child of a wealthy household, she gains a lot more latitude from those in charge than a street urchin might, which allows her to get away with slipping away from the “Above World” of the deck and passengers to the “Below World” where the crew lives and works.

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The Batavia replica was constructed between 1985 and 1995 at the Bataviawerf (Batavia shipyard) in Lelystad, The Netherlands. Image: Malis via Wiki Commons – image and text from Sea Museum

Gil is a lonely boy, who has seen little stability in his life, and more than his share of horror. Grandpa Joss is less than welcoming, (Gil’s mother had not exactly been a model daughter.) wants him to become a fisherman like him, an occupation to which Gil is ill-suited and strongly opposed. He finds a friend or two. Silvia, the young wife of an older fisherman (and hated rival to his grandfather) takes him under her wing. Dutch, an older deckhand, takes an interest in him as well. In addition, Gil acquires a companion of a different sort, Enkidu, a tortoise named for a bff from ancient literature.

There are challenges to survival for both Mayken and Gil, not just their initial de-parenting trauma and grief. In fact there is enough mirroring of their experiences for a carnival fun house. Both are, effectively, orphaned only children, with dead mothers and absent fathers, sent to live with relations after the death of their mothers. Both explore strange new places, with the assistance of those more familiar. Both have a belief in the reality of supposedly mythical beings, finding it easier to seek explanations for the world in cultural fantasies than in the awfulness of the humans around them. (The shadow-monster darkens and becomes solid. It is terrible. Slime slicks and drips over ancient barnacled scales. Eyes, luminous and bulging. Gills rattling venomously. A great, festering eel-king.) It is called a Bunyip.

Both are outsiders, in peril from people in their community. There is plenty more. But both come into possession of a stone with a hole in it, that is supposed to have special properties, a witch-stone, or hag-stone. The very same one. It is a link across three hundred sixty years, connecting their parallel experiences. As children, neither has control over much of anything, so they are both at the mercy of the adults around them, not all of whom are benign. With limited immediate familial resources, they are trying to create a kind of family for themselves.
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This engraving depicts three scenes associated with the loss of the Dutch ship Batavia in 1629. Top: Batavia approaches the Houtman Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia at night. Lower right: the vessel aground on a reef with the crew in boats attempting to refloat it. Lower left: the state of the Batavia the next day, and the passengers and crew abandoning the ship. ANMM Collection 00004993

One of the wonderful things about this novel is the view we get of a lengthy ocean voyage in the 17th century.

The physical research helped. “Bumping my head about 400 times as I walked around the ‘Batavia’ replica, it really helped to get a physical sense of the life. The same with the island, walking around and seeing the barrenness and feeling the elements.” – from The Bookseller interview

The demise of the ship is terrifying, but not so much as the demise of civilization that follows for the survivors. Existential threats abound in 1989 as well, for Gil and others.

There are many compelling secondary characters. Several on the ship stand out, a soldier, John Pinten, the ship’s doctor, Aris Jansz, Holdfast, a denizen of the rigging, who snatches Mayken up. Imke the nursemaid is a fun addition, and Creesje, who looks to help Mayken going forward, is a warm, nurturing presence. Those surrounding Gil are likewise interesting. Gil’s colorful grandfather, Joss, goes through some changes. Dutch is a warm force, as is a researcher, on the island looking into the wreck.

While Mayken and Gil are entirely fictional, Kidd has populated her story with many of the actual people who were on the Batavia. The presence of those historical personages gives the events that take place in the novel even greater heft. The kids are very nicely drawn, and will engage your interest and sympathy.

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Wallabi Island (left), Beacon Island (centre) and Morning Reef (right). Image: Hesperian with NASA satellite photos via Wiki Commons. – image and text from Sea Museum

Tension ratchets up for both Mayken and Gil. While we know the fate of the Batavia, we do not know the fate of all those she carried.

Unlike in her previous book, Things in Jars, which dealt very considerably with things fantastical, the unreality of the creatures May and Gil perceive is much more subtle. The creatures both claim to be real may or may not be. But both creatures serve admirably as metaphors for the awfulness of humanity.

While this may not be the best possible choice for reading on a ship-based vacation, it is a moving and fascinating read for landlubbers. Kidd writes with the touch of the poet, adorning her compelling, moving story with sparkling descriptive finery, while offering us a child’s-eye view of the most remarkable ship of its time, and telling a tale of doom. Both Gil’s and Mayken’s stories are strong enough masts to have sailed alone, but together they make a weatherly craft and catch a strong wind, easily speeding past potential story-telling shoals.

“How do you describe dread, Gil? That’s what the bunyip is: an attempt to give fear a shape.”
Gil thinks on this.
“Everyone’s fear looks different,” Birgit continues. “So everyone’s creature looks different. But they all eat crayfish, women, and children. That seems to be universal.”
“They’re just warnings for kids. Not to play near water or talk to strangers.”

Review posted – December 16, 2022

Publication date – October 18, 2022

I received an ARE of The Night Ship from Atria in return for a fair review, and a small, ancient piece of (maybe) bone, recently dug up in our back yard. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Kidd’s personal, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Bookseller – Jess Kidd discusses her latest novel, new perspectives and maritime disasters by Alice O’Keefe
—–BNBook Club Jess Kidd discusses SCATTERED SHOWERS with Miwa Messer and Shannon DeVito – video – 41:28 – forget the title – they talk about The Night Ship

My review of an earlier book by the author
—–Things in Jars

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on The Batavia
—–Sea Museum – The Batavia
—–Wiki on Beacon Island
—–The Wayback Machine – Batavia’s Graveyard
—–Western Australian Museum – Batavia’s History
—–Dutch Folklore Wikia – Bullebak
—–American Museum of Natural History – The Bunyip
—–Wiki on Bunyip

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

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One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It began in 1945 as a radio talk, Memories of Christmas, for the Welsh Children’s Hour program. He later merged bits from a 1947 piece called Conversation About Christmas and sold it to Harper’s Bazaar in 1950 as A Child’s Memories of Christmas in Wales. In 1952, Caedmon Records asked him to record himself reading it for the B-side of a collection of his poems. The title we have come to know for the piece, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, was from this recording. Thomas had been unable to remember the title used in the Harper’s magazine version, so recalled as best he could. It turned into kind of a big deal, as the recording is seen as seminal in starting the audiobook industry in the USA.

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Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern – image from Peter Harrington – The Journal – photo by Bunny Adler

Set in Swansea in the 1920s, Thomas offers a fragmented memory, recalling not just one particular Christmas but his childhood Christmases in general.

One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It is a mix of his perspective as a child and his finer focus, looking back as an adult.

The particular Christmas that stands out includes images of a neighbor’s house catching fire

The overall timbre is warm and loving. But there are hints as well of darker elements in the world around. Some bred from imagination

the winds through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe web footed men wheezing in caves… perhaps it was a ghost… perhaps it was trolls…

Others from observation

We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill…I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out… Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.

There is also mention of chasing the English and bears in deep Welsh history, a reference to wars that ended with English subjugation of Wales.

The story is about the sequence of events from one Christmas afternoon, when a neighbor’s calls of “Fire” draw the fire brigade and all breathing neighbors, the narrator and his co-conspirators addressing the possible conflagration with the launching of multiple snowballs. It offers a portrait of youthful shenanigans, and homes filled with boisterous “uncles” and tippling, excluded “aunts.”

Gleeful image-making permeates

“Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

The boys imagine themselves as Eskimo-footed Arctic marksmen, snow-blind travelers on north hills, see their large boots as leaving hippo prints, and approach a maybe-haunted house with carols.

It is a tale about memory itself as much as about Thomas’s recollections of childhood, as individual experiences, although some are specifically recalled, merge into sometimes single, catch-all recollection.

Please do listen to Thomas’s reading, a poet’s reading of prose, elevating his story to a form somewhere between literature and song. A smile sprung forth on my face on hearing this (yes, I have heard it more than a couple of times before. The smile returns every time.) and lasted well beyond the delivery of the final sentence. It would, on occasion, pull upwards, straining my cheeks and gums, before settling back a little in preparation for the next assault. The scenes he recalls, and his snarky commentary, will make you smile, probably in recognition of the sort, if not the specifics, maybe even laugh out loud. It always gets a passel of LOLs from me.

The language is celestial, as is his world-class talent for imagery and word-play. It will lift your spirit and make it hover for the duration of the reading, maybe even a while beyond. You could do worse than making the playing of this recitation a seasonal tradition.

One thing this story is likely to do is to spark personal recollections of Christmases of our youth. I would love to hear about yours.

Thomas’s recalled 1920s Christmases resonated with my memories of Christmases in the 1950s and 1960s Bronx. Mine were certainly not all snow-filled, but, as with Thomas’s recollections, they all occupy the well of memory with a fine dusting of white. Unlike Thomas, there is not a single Christmas that stands out from my childhood. Like his, mine have taken on a general character, merging into a common fuzzy-edged recollection.

The space between Thanksgiving and the special morning was always filled with great excitement and anticipation. Going to see the Christmas displays at Macy’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor’s, and even more stores, became a tradition, as was visiting the massive tree at Rockefeller Center. I got to sit on Santa’s lap at Macy’s at least once, but had sense enough to be skeptical even as a sprout. Why would someone claiming to be Santa’s helper look and dress just like him? Something clearly did not add up. The hunt for presents hidden in closets, cupboards, and underneath anything that had an underneath was a seasonal sport.

On Christmas Eve, my sisters (all three much older) would head out for midnight mass, fresh in finery, make-upped, seeming serious. I had no notion at the time that such a display might have been as much a mating ritual as an act of piety. I was spared that particular form of torture, (a Mass even longer and presumably more unendurable than the ones I was forced to attend every week) excused by my youth. Despite my concerted attempts to remain awake hoping to spot Santa, most years I was long asleep before they all arrived back home, cherry-cheeked, coats and hats asparkle as the dim light inside our front door was magnified by reflections from unmelted flakes.

Christmas morning was a bubbling mass of excitement as we all gathered in the living room, and took turns opening gifts. There was always one for me, and for my brother labeled “From Santa,” supplemental to the gifts from our parents, and each other.

As if we were not wired enough from a night of short sleep followed by a meth-level increase in respiration, Christmas breakfast tended to be French toast, slathered with Aunt Jemima’s, Log Cabin, or Vermont Maid. Attending Mass was mandatory, of course. It is a wonder the church did not crumble to the ground from all the child and pre-adolescent vibrations juddering the pews. We would always unwrap an annual gift, a fruit cake, from my father’s aunt, a mysterious figure I never actually met.

In the years since I have come to think of Christmas as akin to the baseball season for us Mets fans. The lead up was all excitement, wondering what goodies might come our way, hoping for some surprises, and that some gift wishes might come true. The reality was rarely very satisfying, filled as it was with things like socks and pajamas. There were toys, of course, but usually of the Woolworth’s sort, things like cap pistols, and plastic trains that rolled uneasily around a circle of plastic rails. Occasionally, there would be something more interesting. A Davy Crockett coonskin cap was a memorable hit. It was my brother who actually got me some of the more exciting, larger-ticket items, a yellow, battery-operated bulldozer, a robot that shot missiles, a wireless walkie-talkie that was pretty cool for 1960.

The day itself was always an opportunity for some of the neighborhood kids to try out brand new sleds. The Bronx may not have San Franciscan hills (although the West Bronx is particularly rich with steep slopes) but there were plenty of hills, snow, slush and ice-covered land to be challenged. Even if you did not get a new sled, there was certain to be a neighbor kid who had, and there was a chance he might let you take it for a ride. Of course, there were always cardboard boxes and trash can lids that offered a sliding descent if not a lot of control. Not that it ultimately made a lot of difference to me. It was while attempting to steer an actual sled down a Tremont Avenue sidewalk that my face made a dent in a stubbornly unmoving tree. Sadly, sledding was one of many skills I never managed to acquire. The tree in our tiny living room was real, in the early years, but as adolescence approached, and my parents ploughed further into middle age, it was supplanted by a disappointing plastic imitation.

The toys were soon in pieces. The new PJ’s supplanted their high-water, short-sleeved predecessors. Winter settled in, and the disappointment of not getting what you really wanted faded. Dashed hope settled back underground, like a perennial, biding its time until the next season arrived for it to sprout forth once again, all shiny and new.

When I had children of my own, I tried to install a few elements to make the day special. We had a tree of course. Watching It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas Eve tradition, and I read The Polar Express to them at bedtime. The girls would always find, on Christmas morning, a letter from Santa (typed, in an appropriate font, in red. My hideous penmanship would have been too obvious.) encouraging the sorts of feelings and behavior one might expect from a benign spirit. I made my own Christmas cards for many years, with their names included among the From list. But it was mostly something for me. My greatest parental Christmas triumph, however, was singular. The girls were on the verge of disbelieving. We had recently moved into a new place, a house that featured a beautiful, albeit no longer functional fireplace. I carved a linoleum cut of reindeer hoofs, and proceeded to make hoof prints leading from the fireplace into the living room and kitchen. The girls could not believe that any parent would willingly make such a huge mess, and THEY BOUGHT IT!

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Cover of the original Caedmon recording

The season has settled into another phase for us. ¥es, there is still a tree, although this year is likely to be the last of the real ones. There is my wife and our close immediate relations. The tree skirt is reliably populated with resting felines. My children are scattered so are not a presence, which is sad. I have long since ceased making my own cards, Goodreads review-writing having absorbed that artistic impulse. We still have a special meal, including some foods that only appear once a year. We still exchange gifts on Christmas day. And on Christmas eve I harangue my wife into tolerating yet another showing of It’s A Wonderful Life. I still end up in tears. I can only hope that my kids (all grown up now) have happy memories of the holiday, and that they have found some traditions to carry forward for their own (someday) children.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Review posted – December 4, 2022

Publication date – 1952, in this form, anyway.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the history of the poem – very informative
—–Faded Page – The full text in multiple formats
—–Harper Audio on Soundcloud – Dylan Thomas’s reading – 25:07 – with an introduction by Billy Collins – worth checking out
—–* Encyclopedia.com – a Child’s Christmas in Wales
—–Vinyl Writers – Dylan Thomas’ Caedmon Readings: Childhood, Death, and the Welsh Wild Wonder

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Short Stories, YA and kids

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

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Once war is on men’s minds, Selica had said, it festers within, claiming them.

For a soldier to let his enemy live despite the entrenched inclination to kill touched my heart with a flame. And as he looked out on our land, on the people dying and bleeding on it, no matter if they were Russian or Mongol, I saw pain, deep and endless and raw, open inside him like a ravine about to swallow us. There was light there, light that left me hopeful. Perhaps life, possibly even goodness, did exist, even in a soldier, and it prevailed in the world after all.

Baba Yaga, aka Bony Legs, has gotten a bad rap. Ivan the Terrible, however, deserves all the lousy press that can be heaped upon him. Terrible seems far too tame a word, The monstrous, the psycho-killer, the unspeakable, the mindless slayer of mankind, and on, and on, [insert your pejorative here]. (Of course, this is the portrait presented in the book. The real-life Ivan may have had cause for his paranoia, given the considerable opposition of the gentry to many of his policies. Find out more in this small piece in Britannica.)

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Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – image from her site

The most common images of Yaga are of a frightening witch, tooling about in a strange vehicle, trapping and devouring children, and generally doing dirt to people, a personification of evil. But even in traditional lore, she is sometimes shown with a softer side, a healer instead of a tormenter, a consoler, a comforter instead of a horror. She has been seen as a personification of nature, a Slavic version of Persephone. She appears as a change agent in many stories, a trickster, helping the hero or heroine fulfill their quest.

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Image from The House of Twigs

I had written two books that had gone nowhere. Totally uninspired, almost desperate, I turned to the Russian folktales I had grown up with as a child. Baba Yaga loomed large in these stories—her elusive and mercurial character, her enchanting chicken-legged hut, her terrific mortar and pestle mode of transport, her sharp tongue and fearsome appearance, unsurprising for a woman of knowledge living alone in the wood.
As it turns out, some scholars believe the Baba Yaga we know—the old, ugly hag from the fairy tales—is based on, or is a descendent of, a fertility and earth goddess worshiped by ancient pagan Slavs. I was instantly fascinated by how a goddess could become a witch and just knew I had to write a book not about the infamous hag, but about the little-known woman named Yaga.
– from the Writer’s Digest interview

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A painting portraying Baba Yaga. According to Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga was a witch who often preys on children to eat them. However, some accounts present her as a wise and helpful creature. The painting was created in 1917 and is now located at the House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov in Moscow.

Gilmore is looking to give Yaga some better press, make her more human in some ways, more of a bad-ass superhero in others. She has a team, of course. (Y-men?) The house on chicken legs that is the very definition of creepy, has been transformed into Little Hen, a supportive, nurturing friendly character who might have been the original mobile home. When Yaga speaks to Little Hen she regards her as somewhere between a beloved pet and a partner. Dyen (meaning day) is a considerable wolf. He (thankfully) is Yaga’s primary means of high speed transportation, while also offering his considerable fierceness. Noch (meaning night) is an owl. Noch specializes in reconnaissance and intel-gathering. They share Yaga’s immortality.

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Xénia Hoffmeisterová [cs], Ježibaba [cs] (2000)

As a provider of potions for this and that, Yaga has a following. Among those is the tsar’s wife, the tsaritsa, whom she has known for a long time. She is suffering from an illness that the court physicians cannot seem to touch. Yaga helps her out, but suspects foul play. Although she would prefer to remain safely in her house in the woods, she must go to Moscow to find out who is doing this to Anastasia Romanovna, a kind, sweet young woman. It would appear that Yaga and crew are not the only immortals wandering about. The tsar has fallen under the influence of a dark-hearted ageless sort, someone Yaga knows. And the game is afoot.

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Image from King Edward’s Music

Tsar Ivan is not exactly the best administrator, and it is not long before he is laying waste to large swaths of the country, under the guidance of a dark force. Whether getting there because of his genetic inheritance, or because his mind had been poisoned by a demonic sort, (The actual Ivan was quite superstitious, taking an interest in witchcraft and the occult.) Ivan, who seems at least somewhat rational when we meet him, is soon barking mad, seeing enemies everywhere, even among friends, and showing no hesitation about slaughtering anyone who displeases him. Yaga loves her Mother Russia and considers it her patriotic duty to defend her against enemies foreign and domestic. Ivan definitely counts among the latter. So, superhero vs supervillain.

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Ivan Bilibin, Baba Yaga, illustration in 1911 from “The tale of the three tsar’s wonders and of Ivashka, the priest’s son” (A. S. Roslavlev)

There are levels of existence here with diverse characteristics, lands of the dead and living, a glass mountain, with spells aplenty. Yaga’s adventures might remind you of western mythology and Campbellian quest forms having to do with descending to hell in order to emerge better armed to take on whatever. Yaga needs help from other immortal sorts to accomplish her mission, which becomes pointedly clear later in the book. In the shorter term, she is faced with carnage in Russia, and trying to find ways to stop or even just slow it down.

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Baba Yaga depicted in Tales of the Russian People (published by V. A. Gatsuk in Moscow in 1894)

There is even a bit of romance to counterbalance some of the considerable blood-letting.

After I had witnessed my first birthing not ten years into my life, Mokosh had explained to me the intricacies of lovemaking and child making. “Though immortals can birth other gods and half gods,” she had said, gently, “it is not simple for us, with mortals above all. Most of the time, it happens not. It is even harder for half gods. If it happens, it does so for a reason. It is willed by the Universe.” I had known many men over the centuries, both mortal and immortal. Not once had my trysts ended in anything other than fleeting pleasure or pointless regret. I knew it would never happen for me.

But then she meets Vasily Alekseyevich Adashev, studly warrior, but mortal, which is a problem. It gets complicated. He is probably in his 20s or 30s, she is several hundred. (Baba Cougar?) It is a delightful element.

This is a time of transition in Russia, when the old gods were being replaced by the Christian invader. But local loyalties were sometimes with the old and sometimes with the new. Yet, the old gods were still actively interfering in human activities. Getting a look at such a tumultuous period in Russian history is one of the bonuses of this book.

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Image from Meet the Slavs

The view of reality Gilmore presents is informed by her childhood exposure to Russian mythology. She was born in Moscow and spent her early years there. Fairy tales from childhood figure large, particularly stories set in Old Russia. (Gilmore would have included even more, but maybe in some future work.) Setting her tale in medieval times felt right, which led to focusing on Ivan as THE medieval tsar. It helped that he made an ideal villain, given his location in history, his interest in the occult, and his apparently mass murderous sociopathy. What makes a guy go there?

This being a book by a Russian-born author, about Russia, you can expect that many characters will be referred to be multiple names. And it can be tricky discerning the good Ivans, Vasilies and Alexes from the bad ones. I read an ARE, so cannot say if the final print (and epub) versions contain character lists. If your copy lacks one, you might want to start your own. My minimal gripes about the book have to do with the attention required to keep everyone straight, and a need for a primer on the structure of everything in Old Russian lore. How many layers of afterlife are there? How does one move from to another? It can be eye-crossing keeping this in order.

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Image from Amino Apps

That said, I found The Witch and the Tsar a delightful, satisfying read. Yaga was a very appealing character. Gilmore has succeeded in making her relatable, and her companions appealing. The devastation wrought by Ivan and those driving him provide all the motive force anyone might require to do everything possible to stop it, which gives us a lot to root for. The romantic element is a nice touch. Added payload on Russian history, folklore, and old religion is most appreciated. I have provided a few links in EXTRA STUFF to more about Yaga in folklore. I urge you to check those out. Baba Yaga may have had plenty of unpleasant things written about her, and many a hideous image created, but in The Witch and the Tsar, Yaga is looking pretty good.

Mother had taught me the immortal side of earth magic, of doing without awareness, without feeling. With Dusha, I learned to listen to the natural world around me, not only to the sky, the trees, the waters, the very air, but also to myself.

Review posted – 11/25/22

Publication date – 9/20/22

I received an ARE of The Witch and the Tsar from Ace of Berkley of Penguin Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Gilmore’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Gilmore is hard at work on her next novel, with a draft due to her editor in September. This one will be a gothic, set in the 1920s, after the revolution. Two sisters confront their past in their old ancestral house in Moscow. Pub date TBD.

Interviews
—–Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe – The Book of Gothel: Mary McMyne in convo with Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – video – Gilmore reads from the beginning of her book – 0:00 to 21:48. Mary McMyne then reads from her book – to 39:43. Then Stephanie Jones-Byrne interviews them from about 40 minutes
—–Writer’s Digest – Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Paulette Kennedy – DEBUT SPOTLIGHT: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Items of Interest from the author
—–Paste Magazine – excerpt
—–discussion guide from her site

Items of Interest
—–World History Encyclopedia – Baba Yaga
—–Literary Hub – Baba Yaga Will Answer Your Questions About Life, Love, and Belonging by Taisia Kitaiskaia
—–Britannica on Ivan the Terrible

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan

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Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized mundane.

These days, we can clearly see the fallout from decades of declining public trust, the result, at least partly, of so many years of the press being undermined and of undermining itself. What is that fallout? Americans no longer share a common basis of reality. That’s dangerous because American democracy, government by the people, simply can’t function this way. It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

My parents were both readers, which should come as no surprise. Mom, a homemaker, consumed a steady stream of mysteries her entire life, as least the part of it that included me. Dad worked at night, but would set aside some reading time every day, particularly on his days off. He was not much of a book reader, though. His preferred material was the newspaper. Well, newspapers. There was a flood of them coming in, the New York Post (pre-Rupert), the Daily News, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, the Telegram, the Times. Not saying that we had all of these coming in every day, but all were well represented. And if you wanted to see what he was reading, it was not hard to figure it out. Next to his living room easy chair there was always a stack. If it were books, today, we would call it a TBR. But the stack had a life of its own, and a sorting that was inexplicable. He must have read a fair bit as he kept the pile from overwhelming the room, hell, the entire apartment. I cannot say that I was a big news-reader as kid. More sports than anything. I wanted to keep up with the teams I cared about, the baseball Giants, the Yankees, and eventually the Mets.

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Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS

I was very fortunate to have been raised in an environment in which reading the news, every day, was just a normal part of living. Even though my parents were not well-educated—Mom finished high school. Dad did not.—they valued staying informed. There was no talk at home about reporters slanting stories, although I am sure they did. The news was like the water supply, presumed to be potable, and universally consumed. But there was one exception. It was not until later in life that I began to read the news with a more critical eye, but even as a kid, I could see that sportswriter Dick Young was a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, flogging right-wing bile that had nothing to do with sports. I guess that was my first real exposure, consciously anyway, to journalistic political bias. Young was not a person who could be trusted, even though he held a very public position at a major New York newspaper. I doubt, if Dad were still with us, that he would accept what he’d be reading today as revealed truth. But back then, mostly, though, we took the news at face value.

Margaret Sullivan, a doyen of media self-reflection, has not been happy with the face value of American news reporting for quite some time. The news media, in her view (and in the view of anyone with a brain) is far too concerned with the horserace aspect of political competition, far more than they are with the actual policy substance that differentiates candidates and parties. One of the most respected journalists of her generation, having led a major regional newspaper, and having held two of the most widely read and respected writing posts in contemporary American journalism, she has had a ring-side view of this in action. She worked for thirty-two years at The Buffalo News, rising to be their top editor and a vice president. In 2012 she moved on to be the Public Editor at The New York Times, and in 2016 headed to The Washington Post as a media columnist in the high-powered Style section. She retired from that gig in August of 2022, and is currently teaching part time at Duke while working on a novel.

She won a Mirror award for her writing on Trump’s first impeachment, served on the Pulitzer Prize board, and was a director of the American Society of News Editors. She has also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous sexism, as she worked her way through her share of glass ceilings. She knows a thing or two, because she has seen a thing or two. Newsroom Confidential is not just a personal memoir of her career in the newsroom, but a look at the changes that has taken place in journalism and in our view of journalism over her career.

It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.

The high point may have been the inspirational impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Nixon administration’s corruption, Watergate most particularly. It was seeing that journalism was a way to impact the world, to improve it, that moved her to pursue a career in the news. We follow her through the career travails at The Buffalo News. She tells a bit about her full dedication to work conflicting with the demands of having a family, exacerbated by having to cope with the extra resistance of gender bias in her struggle to advance her career.

But while Buffalo may have occupied the bulk of her professional life, it does not occupy a proportional piece of the book. The real meat begins with her move to The New York Times. As Public Editor, her role was to be an outsider, looking critically as the work of Times reporters. Not exactly a recipe for making friends. Most editors were not particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or not. The sexism presented straight away, as a Times obituary about a very accomplished woman opened with a description of her cooking skills. Her job was not only to write about wrongs, but to offer recommendations for improvement. It would prove a Sisyphean task. She writes about her personal conflict in taking on a Public Editor investigation into a story written by a Times mentee of hers. While it may have been an important and high-profile position, it was a very tough job at times.

One thing I learned back in my twenties is that it is not only the content of articles that merits attention. Their placement is also significant, as is the heading given to those articles. These are often provided by an editor, not the reporter, and are often misleading. Sullivan writes about the most egregious example of the Times doing this, in its treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The paper saw Clinton as a “pre-anointed” candidate, presuming that she would win. They wanted to be seen as tough, and were very defensive about being seen as too soft on Democrats.

The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently. It shouted one from the rooftops, and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands. With a little more than a week to go before the election, the Times published a story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” If anyone was concerned about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin, their fears might be put to rest by that soothing headline, though the story itself was considerably more nuanced. Even that reporting, not very damning for Trump, appeared on an inside page of the paper, a far cry from the emails coverage splashed all over the front page, day after day. We now know, of course, that Russia had set out to interfere with the election, and did so very effectively.

That sort of selective exposure was not exactly new. The Times had been aware, back when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, of a domestic spying program. They sat on the story for thirteen months, finally posting the information when the reporter who dug up the story threatened to scoop them with his book. The potential impact was considerable, as revelation of the program during the campaign might have impacted the election result. One collateral result of this was that when a later major leaker of government secrets was looking for a trustworthy outlet, the Times was bypassed, because there was no confidence that the paper would publish the material. The Washington Post and The Guardian received the materials instead.

She writes about the transition of the news business from paper to digital, the decline in readership overall, and the national decline in news outlets, noting some who railed against the change, and others who saw the future early on and climbed on board.

Sullivan’s real reporting bête noire is excessive reliance on anonymous sourcing, aka access journalism. Sure, there are instances in which getting on-the-record quotes is impossible, or even dangerous. But the over-reliance on anonymity has resulted in reporters being played for fools, being fed self-serving tidbits, often intended to dishonestly manipulate public perceptions, often aimed at using reporters as ordnance in internecine political battles, and far too frequently serving no public good. The classic example of this was Judith Miller at the Times, reporting inaccurate intel given to her by members of the Bush Administration in order to build support for a war that was already being planned.

In the digital age another piece of this is a compulsion to generate clicks. This creates an incentive for reporters to sometimes hold on to maybe-less-exciting policy stories in favor of pieces that are likely to raise a reader’s temperature. The old trope If it bleeds it leads has been translated into the age of digital journalism as favoring heat over light.

It is not really breaking news why people’s trust in journalism has declined. The news was once considered a realm in which professionals investigated and reported stories with an eye toward what was considered newsworthy. But with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine regarding broadcast news, the gates were opened for full-time partisanship in the airwaves. The concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has diluted, if not entirely removed, local news reporting. Now, many local stations broadcast what their distant owners tell them to, including the airing of political puff pieces for favored candidates and issues, and political hit pieces for those they oppose. With so many places in the nation reduced to a single newspaper or local news channel, local news has become more and more a mouthpiece of national corporate views. And a reduction in the availability of diverse perspectives.

The rise of the internet has had a huge impact on how we receive and perceive news. But a major reason, maybe the biggest, for a loss of faith in the media is the relentless assault on mainstream media by the right. Bias in the media is hardly new, but the unceasing emotionally-charged torrent of lies from right-wing media has raised dishonesty to a new, steroidal level. Every article that portrays Republicans or their supporters in a less than flattering light is attacked as evidence of some imaginary left-wing bias. One result of this relentless attack machine is that many outlets have become reluctant to report actual facts, lest they be attacked as biased. The Times, for example, took years to finally come around to describing Donald Trump’s blatant lies as just that. Can you fully trust a paper that is so weak-kneed about reporting the facts? Even regular Times readers must wonder. And, of course, those on the right now attack any media outlet that does not totally support the GOP party line. Even where no bias is present, many, if not all, on the right claim to see unfairness because they have been told thousands of times that such bias is always present. And the right is fond of using the threat of lawsuits to harass their targets. Trump is notorious for suing the objects of his ire, not expecting to win in court, but hoping to cost the sued large sums of money in legal fees, thus intimidating them, and, he hopes, deterring them from crossing him again. At least the Times has the resources to stand up to such bullying, but there are many media outlets that do not. Thus, MSM reporting slants away from truth.

Sullivan’s experiences writing for the Times and Post are fascinating, offering a view from inside the fishbowl, of the cultures, and some of the personalities, the battles that were fought against external attackers and the internecine conflicts that occur everywhere.

If Dad were around today, I expect he would approve of the many news subscriptions my wife and I share, the Times, the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, our local paper, et al. Our stacks of unread material may not accumulate next to chairs in our living room, but reside instead in a black hole of unread materials and a digital TBR of things we intend to get to. We have come to view news reporting with critical eyes, sensitive to biases that creep into (or are on full display) the text of pieces, aware of how those pieces are presented, where, when, and why. The sort of trust in the news that was extant in the middle twentieth century is gone. But that does not mean that all trust has been lost. For those willing to do the work, it is possible to discern good from bad, both in publications and reporters. But it takes a lot more effort today than it ever did. We are aware, as our parents’ generation was less likely to be, of a reporter’s bent. As the world has forced us to look closer at all sorts of informational input (think ingredient lists on food packages), we have become more discriminating consumers of news. This reporter can be relied on. That one cannot. The fracturing of the news into a galaxy of providers has made it easier than ever to choose only the news that that fits preconceived perspectives. But it is not exactly a news-flash is that it remains possible to find quality reporting. It just takes a bit of digging.

As for Sullivan’s look back at her career and the shift in public perceptions, it is revelatory, informative, and engaging. If you know anything at all about Sullivan’s writing, this will not come as a shock. The bad news? The decline in public trust of media is very real, as is the reduction in local reporting. The good news? (I believe) people are becoming more aware of bias in supposedly neutral news media. Trust in journalism can be rebuilt, but it is clear that many outlets rely on readers/watchers accepting their reporting with uncritical eyes. After you read Newsroom Confidential you will have a greater sense of what the journalistic challenges are today, both for readers and producers of news. You will not be able to say That’s news to me.

Review posted – 11/18/22

Publication date – 10/18/22

I received an ARE of Newsroom Confidential from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair and balanced review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an ePUB.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Margaret Sullivan’s FB and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff
—–Apple News in Conversation – Something is Broken in American news. Can it be fixed? with Shumita Basu – Podcast

Items of Interest from the author
—– Sullivan pieces for the Washington Post –
—– Sullivan pieces for the New York Times
—–The Washington Post – If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto an adapted excerpt
—–Literary Hub – Veteran Reporter Margaret Sullivan’s Favorite Books About Journalism

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Journalism, Non-fiction

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness by Patrick House

book cover

The brain…is a thrift-store bin of evolutionary hacks Russian-dolled into a watery, salty piñata we call a head.

…consciousness is not something passed on or recycled–like single molecules of water, which are retained as they move about the earth as ice, water, or dew–from one living creature to the next…instead consciousness should be grown from “scratch” with only a few well-timed molecular parts from plans laid out. It is not drawn from a recycled tap of special kinds of cells or dredged from the vein of free will. No, the darn thing grows. From its own rules. All by itself. And we have no idea how or why.

When I was still a programmer it was necessary to understand the many characteristics of, and rules about using, the objects that we would place on the screen in an application. Under what conditions did one appear? Physical dimensions, like width and height. Does it have a borderline around it? How wide is that line? Does it have a background color? How about a foreground color? Can it display images, text, both? Where does it get its information, keyboard entry, internal calculation? and on and on and on. Fairly simple and straightforward once one knows how it works. But consider the human brain, with billions of neurons, and a nearly infinite possible range of interactions among them. Somehow, within that biological organ, there is a thing we refer to as consciousness. We are who and what we are, and saying so, thinking so, makes us conscious, at the very least. But how did this gelatinous, gross substance, come to develop awareness of self? And just what is consciousness, anyway?

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Patrick House – image from Attention Fwd ->

Patrick House, a Ph.D. neuroscientist, researcher and writer, offers a wide range of looks at what consciousness might be, mostly by looking at details of the brain. How do the characteristics of zombie food come to be, and how do they combine to create something far greater than a tasty meal for the hungry dead? He looks at many of the currently popular ideas that try to get a handle on the fog that is consciousness.

The book is a collection of possible mechanisms, histories, observations, data, and theories of consciousness told nineteen different ways, as translations of a few moments described in a one-page scientific paper in Nature, published in 1998, titled “Electric Current Stimulates Laughter.” The idea is an homage to a short book of poetry and criticism, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which takes the poem “Deer Park” by Wang Wei and analyzes nineteen different translations of it in the centuries since it was originally written.

He points out more than once that our brains did not emerge in an instant, all sparkling, from the build-a-brain factory. They evolved, from the very first living cell, so at each step of the evolutionary ladder, whatever traits favored survival and reproduction became dominant, pushing prior adaptations into the DNA equivalent of attic storage. Some of the accretion of the prior adaptations may vanish over time, but bags of the stuff are still lying about.

In tracing how our brains evolved, He points out qualities, like the brain’s need for cadence, and timekeeping, shows that language and action are comparable products of the brain and reports on how speech arose from systems that governed movement. He looks at the brain’s mission of preventing our bodies from losing 1.5 degrees of internal temperature, at how we map out the sensate terrain around us, and at the significance of size in brain complexity.

Imagery runs rampant. There is a chapter on the pinball machine as an appropriate metaphor for consciousness. It was a TILT for me. But ineffective chapters like that one are rare, and can be quickly forgotten when the next chapter offers another fascinating perspective, and bit of evolutionary vision. Another, more effective image, was scientists looking for “surface features” of the brain that might tell us where consciousness lies, like geologists surveying terrain to identify likely ore locations.

Throughout the book House refers to a patient, referred to as Anna, who, while having neurosurgery, had her brain poked in various locations by the surgeon, testing out the function of different parts of her gray matter, prompting some unexpected results. Grounding much of the discussion in the experience of an actual person helped make the material more digestible.

As I read, questions kept popping up like synapses flashing a signal to the next synapse. First of all is a definition of consciousness. What is it? How is it defined? Probably the most we can hope for is to infer its existence from externalities, in the same way that astrophysicists can infer the presence of a black hole by measuring the light coming from nearby objects, without ever being able to actually see the black hole, itself. Is there a measurable range of consciousness? Is entity #1 more or less conscious than entity #2. (Man, that is one seriously self-aware tree) How might we measure such a thing? This is actually addressed in one of the chapters. I would have been interested in more on consciousness in the world of Artificial Intelligence. If programmers put together a sufficient volume of code, with a vast array of memory and data, might there be a possibility of self-awareness? What would it take?

For an item on an electronic screen, one can find out the specific characteristics that comprise it. And with that knowledge, check against a list of possible items it might be. It might be a text-box, or a drop-down menu, or a check-box, a button that triggers an action when clicked. But with the brain, while we can compile a considerable list of characteristics, there is not really a list against we can check those things to arrive at a clear conclusion. Oh yeah, any entity, biological or electronic, that possesses at least some number of certain core characteristics, can be considered to be conscious. Nope, it does not work that way.

I found by the end of the book that I had learned a fair bit about how brains evolved, which is always a wonderful experience, but was as uncertain at the end as at the beginning about just what consciousness is. I expect that House shares that leaning, to at least some degree.

There is no one such thing as “consciousness,” and the attempt to study it as a singular phenomenon will go nowhere.

But he does suggest that consciousness exists as a range of experiences rather than as a singular entity with firmly defined borders. It is a fascinating read, even if the core definition is lacking. One thing is for sure, it is brain candy of the first order whether you are self-aware or not.

And just for fun, for next week’s class, be prepared to discuss the difference between consciousness and the mind.

Review posted – October 29, 2022

Publication date – September 22, 2022

I received an ARE of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the House’s personal, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Wang Wei – Deer Park

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Science and Nature

Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss

book cover

…lungfish survive droughts by coating themselves in mud and sinking deep into sleep, the mud hardening and cracking in the sun until finally water returns and sets everything loose again, brings movement back to earth, and fish. Lungfish can go three and a half years without food.

…what’s new, now, is everything I didn’t see. My life behind the curtain.

Tuck is struggling to survive. She and her husband, Paul, along with daughter Agnes (two and a half), fled Pittsburgh after he lost his job and they got evicted. They head to an otherwise uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. It features a house that her grandmother owned, but gran has passed. And the house is to go to her son, Tuck’s father. Problem is that Pops cannot be located, nor can he be presumed dead, so Tuck is stuck. If her father were around to inherit, then Tuck and family would have a place to live. Thus, they are squatting in the house, dreading a determination by the executor of Gran’s estate that the place be sold. Winter is coming and she has to find someplace else to live before that happens.

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Meghan Gilliss – image from Skylark Bookshop

Problem #2 – hubby is a drug addict. It was why he’d lost his job and they were forced to move. He is trying to rehab on the island. And they are broke, having sold most of their possessions. So, Tuck is trying to survive on what little food remains in the house. Once Paul is well enough to work, he begins taking Gran’s boat to the mainland, and he does find something eventually. But then starts returning back to the island much later than expected, and with a paltry amount of money, and minimal provisions. So, the problem persists.

Tuck and Agnes forage for food in the woods and on the beach, barely managing to hold body and soul together. Tuck reads to Agnes. Her favorite is Rumpelstiltskin. They use the readable books that have been left in the house, religious texts, field guides, and poetry, William Blake gets some repeats, particularly The Tyger. There is a strange scent in the house that she associates with this poem and an actual tiger. There are field guides that help them in their foraging, and identification of local flora and fauna.

There are no phones, no internet connections, and a radio that is used sparingly with juice from a gas-powered generator. How does one cope with such aloneness? With only a small child for company most of the time? Many a new mother might ask the same question, particularly if their husband had made himself as absent as Paul has been.

Tuck has been mostly a passive sort, willing to accept whatever others, particularly Paul, might tell her. He is her provider and she is good with that, as long as, you know, he provides. It seems that he is better at providing for his addiction than he is at providing usable resources for his family. He tries going cold turkey, but it is a struggle, and the demons that have driven him toward addiction remain.

So, we have a very isolated (a total trope, on an island with no comms) woman having to face the fact that if she does not provide for herself and her daughter, no one else can be counted on to do so. This is her challenge and her path.

The book is written in fragments. Chapters (I counted 88, but could be off by one or two) are often only a page, or a part of a page long, comprised of small paragraphs. There is a lot of white space. But, while in terms of word count, it is probably not that much, it is a slow read. Gilliss has a very poetic style, which, while lovely to read, often calls for re-reading. Much of what we need to know is hinted at, but rarely overtly stated. It is a rewarding read, but requires real engagement. In a pointillist sort of way, Gilliss is offering us many, many dots, and asking us to step back and see the whole image she has created.

Several elements stand out. Smell features large. Tuck follows her nose to memories as well as contemporary revelations. The scents of her grandmother and father remain a presence, as does the unidentifiable aroma she names tiger.

I smelled my grandmother on the blankets in the mornings, after the night’s worth of body heat made a sort of steam collect in the wool; I smelled her on my skin. I smelled my father, too, when the tide was out and the mud squelched between our toes…I smelled my brother in the smooth-barked oak.

Hunger looms over all, a constant presence, made even more dire when she begins giving her paltry share of their food to Agnes. Yet Tuck is determined to say nothing, or as little as humanly possible, even as Paul returns home from work with little to offer them, having learned in a fraught childhood that it was safer to remain mute.

Seeing is key. By nature, I made do with what was given. By nature, I didn’t much notice what wasn’t. Tuck wonders how she had not seen his addiction earlier. But clearly Paul is not all that concerned, as focused as he is on trying to rehab, and then feeding his addiction. Abandoned by both parents, Tuck is now effectively being abandoned by her husband. But learning to see does not come naturally to her. I was late to so much knowledge.

Searching is another thread, which extends to the physical and spiritual worlds. It is crucial that she locate her father, so Tuck goes to the mainland library publicly accessible computers to search for him, and to search for a place to live, to search for her legal rights regarding the house, and to search for information about the drug Paul is addicted to. She is also searching for meaning. Tuck wonders whether it might help to attend church even though she is not an actual believer. Her grandmother was a Christian, but doesn’t faith require too much loss of personal identity to a collective mind? She also thinks about what is worth believing in, and what belief is. But she had been a believer in her husband, and now that faith has been shaken. She looks for meaning in the natural world of the island.

Gilliss writes beautifully about the nature her characters encounter, the creatures they see, and/or eat, the seaweed, mushrooms and other growing things that provide either calories or visual sustenance.

We have a piece of property like this in my family—a steadily shrinking piece of the land that generations of my ancestors have spent time on. – from The Millions interview

So, there is a lot going on here, a young mother coming to terms with the reality of her dire situation, contemplations of faith and meaning, using all the senses to paint a picture. It can be a bit tough to relate to Tuck at first. Really, honey? You did not see that your guy was doing drugs? How blind can a person be? Pretty blind, it turns out. But we can still relate to her struggle to save herself and her child, particularly once she starts to see more of the reality in front of her, once she becomes an active participant rather than a passive non-player. The writing is poetic and compelling, the fragmentary style interesting. It works to support a dream-like quality that meshes well with Tuck’s experience. Lungfish is a compelling first novel, beautiful and engaging, as rich with insight and beauty as it is heavy with dark circumstances and feckless behavior. It will be difficult to ever walk a beach again, picking up stones and examining the diversity of nature’s bounty without thinking of this book.

How could we be expected to save these things, one after another, when they couldn’t even do this basic thing for themselves?

Review posted – October 14, 2022

Publication date – September 13, 2022

I received a copy of Lungfish from Catapult in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Gilliss’ personal and Instagram pages

Profile – From Catapult
MEGHAN GILLISS attended the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a fellow of the Hewnoaks Artist Residency. She has worked as a journalist, a bookseller, a librarian, and a hospital worker, and lives in Portland, Maine. Lungfish is her first novel.

Interviews
—–Skylark Bookshop – Meghan Gilliss discusses LUNGFISH – by Alex George – video – 59:43
—–Ploughshares –
Lungfish’s Exploration of Isolation by Kaitlyn Teer
—–Electric Literature – There’s No Place Like Grandma’s Abandoned Island by Arturo Vidich
—–The Millions – Peace Alongside Unrest: The Millions Interviews Meghan Gilliss by Liv Albright

Item of Interest from the author
—–Bomb – excerpt

Item of Interest
—–William Blake – The Tyger

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen

book cover

“There are birds, and then there are other birds. Maybe they don’t sing. Maybe they don’t fly. Maybe they don’t fit in. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather be an other bird than just the same old thing.”

“If the people around you don’t love you just as you are, find new people. They’re out there.”

What happens to the untold stories? Two of my grandparents were in vaudeville at some point, yet I know almost nothing about that. Any materials passed down found its way to relations other than me, to my aunt’s family perhaps, or maybe through my mother to my older sibs, sisters in particular. I had always intended to speak with my sister Loretta about Grandma Anna, but she passed away before I got to it. The wages of procrastination, and surprise illnesses in old age. What happened to that story? What was my grandmother’s life like when she was in Show Biz? What artifacts might there be from that era that might tell us something? I expect I will never know. What happens to that history? Does it cease to exist if no one remembers. Is it not our duty as children, grandchildren, descendants, to keep alive something of our family heritage? Because whether we are aware of the events of prior eras or not, they have had an impact on us. History ripples forward in time and we are all riding its waves or are swamped by them.

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Sarah Addison Allen – from her FB pages

The characters in Sarah Addison Allen’s Other Birds are grappling with their pasts. Zoey Hennessey is eighteen years old, an innocent, with a heart open to everyone. Starting college in Charleston soon, she wanted to spend some time at the condo that her mother had left her. Paloma used to bring her here for weekends and getaways. It carries the warmth of those memories. Mom had died when Zoey was a child. Her father did not have anything good to say about her, and her step-monster was not exactly her number one fan.

It is one of five units in a tucked-away development on Mallow Island, off the coast of South Carolina. The area had been made famous by a world-class novel, Sweet Mallow, written fifty years ago by the rarely seen Roscoe Avanger. Think To Kill a Mockingbird. The island is also famous for the product that it is named for.

If she hadn’t known that Mallow Island had been famous for its marshmallow candy over a century ago, Trade Street would have told her right away. It was busy and mildly surreal. The sidewalks were crowded with tourists taking pictures of old, narrow buildings painted in faded pastel colors. Nearly every restaurant and bakery had a chalkboard sign with a marshmallow item on its menu—marshmallow popcorn, chocolate milk served in toasted marshmallow cups, sweet potato fries with marshmallow dipping sauce.

Zoey has a companion no one else can see, Pigeon, a bird, who is fond of knocking things over.

Charlotte Lungren, 26, is a henna artist, with a space at the Sugar Warehouse, a local artists enclave. Her mother had been a real prize, joining a religious cult led by a thieving sociopath, which was not a healthy environment for a teenager. Charlotte fled when she was 16 and has been on the run, in one way or another, ever since.

Nice, in her experience, meant one of two things: It was either hiding something darker just beneath the surface, or it made you lower your defenses and believe that there was more of it in the world than there actually was, which always led to disappointment. Either way, she wasn’t falling for it.

Frasier manages The Dellawisp Condos, named for the peculiar, turquoise birds that inhabit the grounds. When Zoey arrives, what she sees is an elderly black man in faded jeans and a khaki work shirt. He had a long white beard tied at his chin with a rubber band, like a pirate. He has an interesting personal characteristic that has made his life unusual.

After passing away, sometimes his friends would visit him before leaving this earthly world. It had been happening all his life, and what had been a terrifying experience for him as a boy no longer surprised him. It was usually just a brief encounter—a sparkle out of the corner of his eye, a gust of wind in an airless room, a particular scent.
But there were some, out of fear or confusion or unfinished business, who stayed with him longer.
And of course Lizbeth would be one of them.
She was here in his office with him and he sensed her impatience, like she was wondering where something was.

The ability to sense the dead was handed down. His grandfather had not fared well with it and took to drink to drown out the spirits. They have served Frasier in some positive ways.

Mac Garrett is a chef at the local resort. He had a tough childhood, abandoned by his mother. Luckily for him there was a neighborhood saint of a woman, Camille, who took it upon herself to feed the two-legged strays in her neck of the woods. Seeing that Mac had essentially been orphaned, she took him in. It was from her that Mac learned that food is love. It became a lifelong passion for him, as Camille’s cooking always came with associated stories. Mac is a lovely, loving man who has some difficulties in the bedroom. No, not that sort. Seems he wakes up every morning covered in cornmeal. A reminder of presence from his late foster mother.

Lizbeth Lime (no relation to Liz Lemon) had issues. She was a hoarder, but with a story to tell. Problem is that she was never able, amidst all the clutter, to locate the diaries that held the tale she needed told. A bookcase falls on Lizbeth on the day of Zoey’s arrival, which leaves another spirit wandering the premises. Her sister, Lucy Lime lives in a separate condo. The sisters had been, to put it mildly, not close. Lucy serves as a Boo Radley figure here, mostly seen peeking out from behind her curtains, watching, always watching, but never engaging.

Oliver Lime has done his best to get as far away from his mother, Lizbeth, as possible. But when she dies, he is dragged into dealing with what she left behind.

Misfits all, in their own way, at the very least, ill-suited to the prescribed routes laid out for them. It is in The Dellawisp Condos that they find a family. The process of how this happens is simply magical. They have to come to terms with their pasts in order to move forward with their lives. It remains to be seen whether they are all capable of doing that.

Allen intersperses chapters titled Ghost Story, in which Lizbeth, Camille, and one other fill us in on backstory for our front-line characters. The ghosts tend to be of a maternal sort.

There are some excellent twists, and some mysteries to solve, like who is that shadowy figure who keeps showing up overnight at the Dellawisp and breaking into the condos? Long-held secrets are revealed. And some long-suppressed family stories are brought out into the light.

There is an element of wistfulness, of wanting to connect, that is surely enhanced by the author’s personal experiences. Her mother suffered a major stroke, managing to hang on for several years. But Allen’s sister died only days before their mother passed. Add in that Allen is, herself, a cancer survivor, and you can see some very personal investment in stories about connecting with lost loved ones. It helps explain why there are a passel of moments near the end of the book that are tear-inducing.

I truly enjoyed Other Birds, looked forward to reading it every day. There are some lovely characters in here, people you will enjoy getting to hang with, however briefly. Allen applies magical realism to great effect, illuminating the conflicts the characters are confronting. In addition, there is also a payload of wisdom about finding or creating one’s tribe, the significance of hanging on too long or too hard to the past, and the importance of learning our history and carrying forward our stories. Other Birds is a very sweet satisfying read

We got wings we can’t see, Camille used to say. We were made to fly away.

Review posted – September 30, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

I received an ARE of Other Birds from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Pinterest, and Goodreads pages

Interviews
—– Barnes & Noble – #PouredOver: Sarah Addison Allen on OTHER BIRDS by Allison Gavilets – Video – 46:06
—– Barnes & Noble – transcription of the B&N interview

Items of Interest
—–Reading Group guides – Reading Group Guide
—–Macmillan – Reading Guide

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy