And Now, Presenting…

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I’m missing a dove, he tells me, a small water fountain…half an assistant.
I’ll keep my eyes out, I tell him. 

It’s that awful moment when any of us realize that why we began something is no longer why we’re doing it.

In his latest short story collection, literary lion David Kranes puts on quite the show. Performance Art offers up stories about people who perform in public. Nine of the stories in the collection were published between 1991 and 2015, with four new tales fleshing it out to a baker’s dozen. While offering some new material the collection serves more as an introduction to a powerful literary writer you may not know. Kranes is 84, and has been at this a long time. He writes in whatever vessel seems appropriate for the stories that occur to him, whether that is poety, plays, novels or short stories. Sometimes the stories migrate. One of the included tales here was the inspiration for a novel.

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David Kranes – image from Continuum

The external focus in this collection is performance, stage performance, for the most part, although the definition is somewhat fluid. The talents on display run quite a gamut, from a daredevil to a stand-up comic, from an actor to an escape artist, from a spokesperson for a weight-loss program to a magician, from a fire and glass eater to a master of sleight of hand, to a world-class photographer, to a carnival knife thrower, and a bit more.

There are some themes, images, and issues that run through, central among which is invisibility. People feeling unseen, maybe even being unseen.

Scott paces four rooms, each one of which, even when he’s in it, seems empty. (A Man Walks Into a Bar)

Nothing about me took up—space or anything else (Target Practice)


Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. (The Weight-Loss Performance Artist)

I turned and moved away. Went. Didn’t stop. Didn’t look back. Instead: became invisible. Became a ghost anchored only by an abiding faith, finally, in the power of absence. (Escape Artist)

Painters permeate. Two of the lead characters paint, and painting is an element in several others. In Daredevil, a character is fascinated with Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. Target Practice includes a character very into Turner. The Garden of Earthly Delights get some spotlight in Devouring Fire.

Celebrities drift or flash through the stories, and not in a particularly favorable way.

Several characters are faced with potentially life-changing opportunities. A painter has a chance to be a very in-demand actor. Another painter might have a chance to direct a film for a household name producer. A stage performer has a chance to revive a career long thought dead and buried. An obese woman is offered a huge sum to be the public face of weight loss. A drug addict is offered a chance to be the knife instead of the target.

The notion of next comes up. In Daredevil, pop offers useless advice to his son re next steps in life. In Target Practice a social services report on the narrator calls her directionless. (“I had no comprehension of next. I had no next moments; obviously no next month, no next week.”)

The stories are set in Vegas, mostly, the southwest, generically, Idaho a time or three. It is pretty clear that Kranes knows The Strip and Vegas like a local. He lives in Salt Lake City. I do not know if he ever lived in Vegas or maybe spent a lot of time there. Both seem likely.

There are a few tales that include bits of fantasy. Most do not. I would not categorize this as a fantasy collection, per se.

While the circumstances are sometimes extreme, there is still plenty to relate to. How many of us have felt unseen, invisible in the world, or maybe want to be. I can certainly relate to the latter. In my theatrical debut (It was Kindergarten I think) I was called on to walk to center stage and recite Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater. I managed to get the words out, but that was not all. By the time I exited stage left my pants had taken on an unwanted yellow tint. Invisibility cloak, please, NOW!!! And we have probably all felt the sting of feeling completely unseen by that boy or girl, man or woman whom we really, really want to see us.

Bottom line is that this collection may not feature all new material (that said, even the previously published stories were new to me) but it offers a splendid sample of a literary talent of great skill and power. David Kranes is a writer worth getting to know. This is top-tier, star-power material.

Review posted – 10/5/21

Publication date – 10/15/21

I received an e-galley from the University of Nevada Press through NetGalley, in return for a visible, performative review. Thanks.

======================================THE STORIES
The Daredevil’s Son (2010) – imagine your father was Evel Knievel. Imagine he was dead set on you following him in the family business. Imagine you have the body, the build, and the looks. Then imagine you have zero interest in doing that.

“So then, you don’t want to be like…do what your father does?” people asked.
“No, because my father scares people,” Lucas Jr said.

There is a lot here that resonates with Kranes’s life. He grew up in the Boston area, his father a big-shot surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in the city. He even enrolled in pre-med, but knew it was not for him. Later even tried Yale Law School. Ditto. Dinners at home would feature Nobel Prize winners (as guests, not on the menu). The bar seemed too high, the pressure too intense to succeed, to perform at that level, at things that did not appeal to him all that much. He headed west instead, opting to follow his own inclinations, not those of his father.

The Stand-up Phobic (2015)
Ethan Fallon feels compelled to perform on stage.
The language of the story mimics the sort of stream-of-consciousness that Robin Williams might have launched into in a moment or that George Carlin might have scripted. It is about words, words, words, and associations, free or otherwise There is a manic aspect to Ethan. It is presented as an interview between Ethan and…someone. You feel bad for the guy, with all this verbal churn going on in his head, and only the stage as a venue for relief.

Ethan’s hair is an air show and he’s sweating. Every performance lately seems a conspiracy-theorist’s nightmare. Any room he’s booked into is slack-jawed and oversized and swallows him. Like a bad Jonah dream. Like having a three-day booking at the Whale. AT THE HOUSE OF RIBS. YEAH! PUT Y0UR HANDS TOGETHER—WON’T YOU, PLEASE—for our own sackcloth and ashes! Ethan Fallon!

A Man Walks Into A Bar (2012)
Scott Elias, a dealer (cards, not drugs) and painter, is approached by two men in a Vegas bar. They mistake him for a well-known actor, but offer him a screen test because they like his presence. They see something in him. So Scott is carted off to appear in the film, sorry, project, they are producing, and life gets crazy from there. But is this the life he wants? He has a roomie, a young man, Tory, also a painter, who had been injured in an auto mishap. It is more of a ward and sponsor relationship, not a sexual one. Tory’s paintings reflect Scott’s inner battle.

Escape Artist (2002)
From birth, Lou has been getting out of things. The need comes with some innate capacity. But there are others who would do well to escape unwanted circumstances, yet lack the native tools and even when they learn the learnable skills, opt for the safety of captivity to the freedom of escape. This story includes a bit about escaping the East Coast, and doctor father, which echoes the author’s relationship with his father.

When I was two, a nurse locked me in a closet under a pile of coats. I got out. When I was six, three bullies tethered me with clothesline, filled my mouth with detergent. I escaped, spat the detergent into the sunlight. It turned green in the bright air, hardened into a nugget of turquoise.
At two, six, I had no words, no plan, only knew my need: lift. Rise, break out, court the insane of the world—if that’s what it took.

When the Magician Calls
Daniel Lawrence, or maybe Lawrence Daniel, has tracked Sheila down. (There is a reference in another story to a Sheila who had been at least partly mislaid by a fading magician) He seems to think Sheila will remember him. Sounds like they had had a prior connection. He would like to help her fully disappear from her current, somewhat imprisoned life. Maybe he can conjure a bit of magic, although it may not be his true calling. My stage-self hungers for standing-room-only. Mostly, though. I feel like some kind of bulked tortoise, lumbering to the sea.

Target Practice
The female narrator seems to have almost died too many times to be a coincidence as a kid. Became a target when she got older, for a Sunday school teacher, for boys with an interest and for needles. But when she meets a carnival knife thrower (and former MLB pitcher) she learns, ironically, how not to be a target, but to be the knife, her survival no longer an unexpected miracle.

The Warren Beatty Project (1991)
Ethan Weise has had a bit of success with his painting, sold canvasses to some famous people. He is working on a series of Edward-Hopper-type paintings, set outdoors. Once, he worked as a “visual consultant” with a student at the American Film Institute. And then, one day, Warren Beatty calls, wanting him to direct a project for him. LaLa Land beckons, limo-driven and low on artistic merit, rich with industry glitterati and the suggestion of connection and work, while short on actual delivery. While his girlfriend pulls him in a different direction. Will he gain notice, or remain largely unseen? Is this project the stuff dreams are made of, or something else?

The Weight-Loss Performance Artist (2008)
Ginger is 5’5” and 340 pounds. Two men approach her to take part in a project. They have a weight-loss program called PoundSolve that offers tailored meals to subscribers, and software that can project what someone will look like after reaching certain weight-loss benchmarks. They would like Ginger to be their spokesperson, and will pay her $4k per pound for every sixteen ounces she takes off. It a pretty good deal from where she sits. Ginger’s twenty-seven and has almost perfected invisibility. As she moves up to translucent, and even apparent, life changes in many ways. The question is how she will cope and whether the changes are all welcome.

My Life as a Thief
The narrator here is unnamed. His father is a doctor, working at Mass General (where Kranes’s father worked). He started doing magic at eleven, with a kit his dad bought him. Turns out to be a gateway drug to ever more professional levels of magic. His life as a thief begins when he is thirteen, teamed up with Arthur Foley, a pal, whose father happens to be a criminal. Turns out having a talent for making things disappear offers a direct path to shoplifting. They move on from there.

Devouring Fire—An Interview
Robbie, a young reporter, has a chance to interview an entertainment legend, Anthony Aquila, 89 years young and still scary. Anthony is renowned for his ability to eat both fire and glass.
There is a fun interaction between the two of them, as Anthony totally intimidates the young man, but also sees the potential in him.

I’ll confess here: I was drawn to his image. It was like one I’d seen in my History of Religions course at State; he was an ascetic. A kind of harp with skin. Bare feet. Ribs like a rack of lamb. Deep hollow cavernous eyes. You could almost hear his echos echo. Shabby, torn clothes. I got the sense that whatever he did, at the same time he could stand back and watch himself doing it.

The Resurrection of Ernie Fingers
The Downtown Palace in Vegas seems to be doing everything right, post Covid, yet the players are not showing up. The place needs something

We need an attraction,”Dickie Rice, the GM, said to Tony Padre, Head of Marketing. “We need crowds fighting to get in. We do that and who we offer, what we offer will sell itself.”
Tony Padre agreed, “Attraction! Absolutely! But what? Who?”

They bring a legend back. Ernie Fingers is a fill-the-place-entertaining performer, but he has been out of the business for a while and has gotten way too familiar with a particular brand of hooch. Can Ernie be brought back to his old form? Ernie ha a special ability, though, and his skills may be fading.

The Photojournalism Project (1996)
Melissa Probert is a gifted, very much-in-demand international freelance photographer. Her work has been shown in major national museums. Hunt is a painter, working on a project making tempura images of roadside memorials. They had a thing once but have remained friends. Melissa calls Hunt to help her with a special project, a book. She wants to make a photo history of a binge drunk, her own, she having a history of such antics, sans lens. Hunt and Leah, his wife? gf? have an ongoing conversation while he is at Melissa’s multi-day drunk re what and how he sees and her forbearance of his friends. In offering a stage for the unseen, is Melissa making Leah vanish from Hunt’s life?

The Fish Magician (1997)
Malcolm volunteers from the audience at The Monte Carlo in Vegas to participate in magician Lance Burton’s show. He steps into a Lucite box on the stage and in short order is vanished…well…transported, to Idaho it would appear. Oopsy. And the aging magician cannot recall where he’d sent Malcolm. Some time later his wife, Ginger, alarmed at her husband’s sudden disappearance, and failure to reappear, hires an investigator to find out just WTF happened. This is a fun tale in which the investigator is a psychic former NFL player who dreams of doing standup. The story was the basis for Kranes’s 2018 novel Abracadabra.

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

Kranes does not maintain an on-line presence, as far as I can tell.

Here is a profile of him in Mapping Literary Utah

Interview
—–Radiowest – The Legend’s Daughter – by Doug Fabrizio – audio – 52:04 – even though it was recorded eight years ago I found this interview very illuminating re this collection

Songs/Music
—–Arthur Rubinstein – Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat – From Ernie Fingers

Items of Interest from the author
—–short story from this collection – The Daredevil’s Son
—–short story – A Figure in a Window
—–a one-act play – Infrastructures

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

Beacon Hell

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover. with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

One Horse Town

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

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

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

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

Digging Into History

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When I first learned that Raiders of the Lost Ark, my favorite movie, might have been based on an actual archaeological expedition, I felt like my face was melting off. – from The Untold Story… article

Before he was the Police Commissioner stuck having to deal with Jack the Ripper, (who was at first, BTW, called, much less memorably, “Leather Apron”) Captain Charles Warren, a Royal Engineer, spent parts of several years near Jerusalem doing archaeological work for the British Crown, digging out some ancient tunnels, and laying the groundwork for explorations to come. About thirty years later, a Finnish scholar believes he has found a code in the Book of Ezekiel that addresses some of the tunnels Warren had excavated. Dr. Valter Juvelius’s code-breaker, he says, points the way to the secret location of the Ark of the Covenant.

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Brad Ricca – image from Amazon

Of course, today this guy would be one of a thousand cranks flogging his wares on the internet, generating eye-rolls, and maybe trying for a spot on Shark Tank. But in 1909 he was taken seriously and was embraced by a group of men willing to spend some of their considerable excess cash on an adventure, and look to their wealthy friends and associates to provide the rest of the needed funding. They formed a group called J.M.P.V.F. Syndicate, for their initials, but referred to it as The Syndicate (nothing sinister there), hoping to find the Ark, reputed to have properties that allowed one to communicate directly with God. Whether it provided an early version of the iPhone, a Star Trek communicator, an eight-ball, a metal can with a very, very long string attached, or no comms-capacity at all, they estimated it to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, or something on the order of twenty three billion dollars in today’s money. Adigging they will go.

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Charles Warren in Palestine, 1867 – image from The History Reader

We follow the progress of the digs over several years, noting the discoveries that were made, and the challenges the participants faced. Some very Indy-ish adventures are included. The point of this book is not to tease you about the location of the Ark. Ok, maybe it is, a bit, but rest assured that if the Ark had been found and the author had figured out where it is, I seriously doubt he would be telling us. He would be living VERY LARGE somewhere, and who knows, maybe having daily chats with you-know-who. (Sup, G?)

True Raiders is my love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but also to the conspiracy-minded genre of eighties properties like In Search Of, Amazing Stories, and Holy Blood, Holy Grail…I…want to ask real questions about the intersections between fact, story, and truth. Did Monty really go after the Ark? Yes, he did. What did he find? That answer is more complicated. – from The Untold Story… article

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Monty Parker – image from Wiki

If you picked up this book without having examined the flap copy or inspected the cover too closely, you could easily mistake it for a novel. Ricca has taken liberties, fleshing out the structure of known events with bountiful interpretation. It makes for a smoother and more engaging read than a mere recitation of facts might allow. I was reminded of the shows aired on The History Channel in which actors portray historical events. Ricca does it with panache. A sample:

Ava Lowle Willing Astor was in a mood. She reclined back on her chair and paged through the Times to take her mind off things. She pushed through the headlines to the society pages, to look for the names of people she knew and parties she had attended—and those she had ruthlessly avoided. The Sunday-morning light was streaming through her high windows. Her daughter Alice was around, somewhere.
“Alice!” she yelled out sharply, in no particular direction but loud. There was no answer. She was probably trying on her jewelry again. Ava made a face.

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Ava Lowle Willing Astor – image from Wikipedia

Ava and Monty flirt. But it seems she is here more for social context, and to offer a take on what challenges were faced by uber-rich women with more independence than was thought proper at the time. There are few women playing a significant role in this story. One is Bertha Vester, a Chicago-born local, brought to Jerusalem as a child. She became a towering figure in Jerusalem, internationally renowned for her charitable work with children of all faiths, through the organization her father had established, The American Colony. She was also a major source for Parker, connecting him to local experts able to help in the dig. And offering him the benefit of her knowledge of area history, including Charles Warren’s work.

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Bertha Spafford, (later Vester) age 19, in 1896. – image from IsabellaAlden.com

In the Notes that follows the text of the tale, Ricca says:

Rather than a history, this is a history of the story. Chapters are grouped into parts that are based on the point-of-view of the person or source used.

That is true enough. Monty Parker’s expedition was the one looking hard for the Ark, but Warren’s work thirty years before had done the initial digging, and the de-coding by Dr. Juvelius provided the actual spark. The stories merge when Parker is helped by Bertha Vester to connect with Warren’s work, and with local archaeological experts.

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Valter Juvelius (left) around 1909–1911 in the Siloam tunnel.

There are personalities aplenty on display here. Ricca gives us some individual histories, although nothing that might smack of a stand-alone biography. Some of the characters were involved in newspaper headlines or related notoriety. Ava Lowle Willing Astor was involved in a front-page divorce from John Jacob Astor IV, who would later sail on the maiden voyage of an ill-starred ship, prior to her involvement with the expedition. As noted earlier, Charles Warren had the misfortune of being the Police Commissioner when Jack the Ripper was cutting his way through London. Monty and his pals gained notoriety of an unwanted sort after one of their (certainly unauthorized) digs. Their hasty retreat was an international incident, garnering coverage in the New York Times, and generating mass outrage among the locals in Jerusalem.

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NY Times headline about Parker absconding

…on May 14, 1911, The New York Times ran a story titled “Mysterious Bags Taken from Mosque.” In it, the expedition is described as having worked for two years just “to reach that one spot.” And though the article asserts that “what they really found no one knows,” it notes that the expedition “told different persons that they are ‘very satisfied.’” The article claims that four or five men, including Parker, Duff, and Wilson, invaded the Haram at midnight, having gained entrance by bribery, and that they lifted up a heavy stone, entered a cavern, and “took away two bags.” Before they left on their white yacht from Jaffa, they had a cup of tea. The caretaker they had bribed was in jail and suffered a further indignation: his great beard and mustache had been shaved off in public.
The same story also printed a conversation between a “very liberal” Moslem man of Jerusalem and an Englishman:
“Suppose that some Moslems entered Westminster Abbey and deliberately carried away treasure from some secret underground vault?” asked the Moslem. “What would happen?”
“War,” said the Englishman.

The book raises questions of where found relics belong, not, ultimately, showing Monty and his partners in the kindest light. Part of that portrayal is to show the self-regard of the upper crust, presuming that their privileged upbringing carried with it not just an inflated sense of entitlement, but an enhanced level of self-regard as being of strong, moral character.

Juvelius was relieved. He knew that one would have to have mediocre intelligence to think they could milk secrets from an English gentleman.

Another participant, Robin Duff, let on to Rudyard Kipling that he was responsible for raping local virgins in Jerusalem. Maybe not quite the highest moral character.

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Father Louis-Hughes Vincent

There is a far-too-lengthy where-are-they-now series of chapters at the back of the book that might have been more alluring in a longer work, one that had offered more beforehand about the people involved, made us more interested in their stories. It makes sense in the overall intent, but seemed too large a tail for a creature of this size.

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(the unfortunately named) Warren’s Shaft – image from Wikimedia

You will learn some interesting intel reading True Raiders, such as where the Indy writers got the notion of that gigantic boulder rolling through a tunnel, a possible origin for a Scandinavian deity, and how George Lucas decided on the Ark as the target of Indiana Jones’s first great quest. It seems possible that Monty Parker was one of many real-world models for the fictitious Indy. The location of the Ark should surely spark some interest of the did-they-or-didn’t-they find it sort. You will see the sort of competition Parker faced while attempting to find the Ark, from both the rich and powerful billionaire sorts and more local interests. Ava Astor has some interesting whoo-whoo experiences, unrelated to Monty’s dig. Ricca offers a sense of adventure in a real-world story, however embellished the details might be. He brings actual archaeological knowledge along, showing the significance of the finds made by both the Warren and Parker digs, gives us a look at some of the social mores and activities of the times, and loads it all up with a wonderful sense of fun, allowing readers to wonder, Would I have done this or that if offered the chance? No fedora, leather jacket, or whip needed. True Raiders is definitely worth exploring. No snakes involved.

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Fake, but fabulous Raider – image from Mental Floss

Review posted – September 21, 2021

Publication date – September 24, 2021

I received an e-ARE of True Raiders from St. Martins through NetGalley in return for doing some digging. Thanks.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

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

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

Interview
—–Constant Wonder – Searching for the Ark of the Covenant – by Markus Smith – audio – 40:34

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt from The History Reader – True Raiders: Charles Warren
—–The Untold Story of the Expedition to Find the Legendary Ark of the Covenant

I try not to think about it too much, but I think I spent a great many lonely years earning a doctorate solely because of Raiders. I may not have been lost in Egyptian tombs or navigated ancient mazes, but I have found lost documents and have taught for many years out of cramped offices that resembled utility closets. And it was all great. But I never thought it would lead me to the Ark. Somewhere, I was disappointed not only that it hadn’t, but that I had foolishly believed it would.


Then I learned about Monty Parker.

Items of Interest (Wikions?)
—–Wiki on Charles Warren
—–Wiki on Monty Parker
—–Wiki on Cyril Foley
—–Wiki on Book of Ezekial
—– Library of Congress – The Bertha Vester diaries
—–World History Encyclopedia – The Moabite Stone [Mesha Stele] by William Brown
—– Wiki on Ava Lowle Willing Astor by Mark Meredith

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Being There

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We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.


If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

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Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

GRIPES
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

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

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

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Sweet and Sour

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It didn’t come easily to me. I had to work at it. But if I learned one thing from Mom, it’s that it was usually worth it being the sweet girl.

“When you die, can I have your skin?” she asked calmly, tracing a finger over my face, before getting up and walking out of the room, leaving me so afraid that I couldn’t move.

Paloma Evans is 30 years old, living in San Francisco. She had been adopted at age 12 out of a Sri Lankan orphanage, the Little Miracles Girls Home. Recently cut off from her parental funds, she engages in dodgy on-line behavior to make a buck, (One of her creepy clients appears to be stalking her) and had to take in a room-mate to help with the insane San Francisco rental costs. But the roomie, an Indian immigrant, learned her big secret, and is blackmailing her, which is bad enough. Arriving home after a few too many, she finds him dead in her kitchen. It gets worse. Chased out of her own apartment by the presumed killer, a seemingly spectral figure, she heads for the stairwell. But fingers close on her neck before she can escape. She wakes up hours later, in the stairway, a scolding neighbor barking at her, presuming she had passed out, drunk…again.

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Amanda Jayatissa – image from Artra Magazine

Before she can figure out how to deal, the cops arrive. She tells them what she had seen, but when they look through the apartment, the body is gone. The detective does not believe her, and his skepticism is understandable. Paloma is a blackout drunk, unable to recall events that took place, actions she undertook during her blacked-out hours. She really has no idea what happened to the guy, but does remember that she had fled her apartment, looking around after discovering the body, and was chased out of the place by a ghost from her past.

Paloma may be an adult, but, despite years of therapy, she has carried from childhood a powerful belief in an old-country ghostly being called Mohini, (think the freaky girl who emerges from The Ring in desperate need of a makeover, dressed in white). Seeing that terrifying presence in her apartment just after discovering her roommate’s body reinforces her belief. Losing hours after fleeing her apartment does not help. So what’s going on?

Mohini is my favorite ghost story. She is one of the most famous urban legends here in Sri Lanka, a stereotypical woman in white…It’s a story that is very special to me. It’s a story we grew up whispering to each other around the candle in the night. I have actually dressed up as Mohini…to scare my cousins…It was hilarious. I knew that I needed to include this ghost story element into the book…It was the story that defined a lot of the scary stories of my childhood. – from the Books and Boba interview

The tale takes place in two timelines, alternating chapters, today, presumably 2018, give or take, as Covid is not yet a thing, and 2000, also give or take, when Paloma was a 12yo orphan in Sri Lanka. We follow her story there, her friendships, her interests, her hopes. The home is not a bad place, those in charge are a relatively benign pair, but on occasion the girls are given a class with the terrible, the horrible, the most feared Sister Cynthia, a sadistic witch of a person, who delights in physically harming the girls and threatening them with eternal damnation. (zero stars in RateMyTeachers) She is, unfortunately, in charge of Saint Margaret’s Home for Girls, the place where those who are not adopted will be sent after they age out of Miracles, a terrifying prospect. The Evanses are a wealthy American couple, supporters of the orphanage, and many other charities. They are looking to buy adopt a child. The girls at the orphanage are all prepped for when potential adopting parents stop by for a look-see, orphanage management trying its best to make a good impression, get one of their girls adopted, and hopefully gain some extra financial support and good press from the adopters.

Paloma and Lihini are besties at Miracles. Physically similar, fair-skinned, similar in height, build and overall looks. They sleep together often, in the comforting child-like sense, not that other one. We see how their relationship evolves with each chapter back in Sri Lanka. As only one child will be selected, there is understandable tension between them.

Today, give or take, Paloma is frantic. She goes to stay at her parents’ suburban house, as they are away, and remaining at the scene of the crime seems unwise. Was she hallucinating? This is not entirely impossible as she had been warned by her therapist that drinking on top of her new meds could do really bad things to her. But did we mention that Paloma is a blackout drunk? Paloma goes all Miss Marple trying to figure out what happened to her roomie, and why. Then the mysteries start to breed. A neighbor of her parents vanishes mysteriously, and who is that strange woman who seems to be spying on her?

The story is plenty fun enough on its own merits. But there is more going on here. Racial elements permeate. Lihini and Paloma stand out a bit from the rest of the girls because of their relatively fair skin, seen as an advantage for those hoping to be taken in by a westerner. There is a wonderful scene in a restaurant bathroom in which Paloma is mistaken for another Asian women by a somewhat inebriated white woman, an experience Jayatissa has had, and which many people she knows have had. It is not the only moment in the book in which someone is unable to tell two people of color apart. Toss in discussions with other POCs about stereotypes applied to South Asians. Her shrink, Nina, whom she likes, is raucously white, dressing in white, her office decorated all in white, and it is shocking when Paloma sees her wearing anything with color.

She kept all her pristine white files inside a pristine white filing cabinet, in a corner of her pristine white office. When I say pristine, I mean surgical-level clean. When I say white, I mean eyeball-searing, detergent-commercial white. She even asked her clients to take their shoes off so they wouldn’t mess up the spotless shag carpet. And it always smelled like freshly laundered sheets. She probably had an air freshener tucked behind the couch or something, because there was never any laundry in sight.

Gender and madness permeates. The book opens with Paloma about to lose it, dealing with a bank employee who is not quite up to speed with the institution’s processes.

I was suffering from the worst case of writers’ block, and to say my mood was bleak would be an understatement. And then I had a really annoying experience with a customer service associate at my bank, where I found myself wanting to scream and shout and make a scene, but of course I didn’t. I kept it together, like most of us are trained to do, went into a coffee shop, where I pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper and really let that customer service associate have it. I guess you could say that’s how Paloma came about. – from The Big Thrill interview

Difficult women are often presumed to be nuts, and many have learned to couch their displeasure under a polite veneer. Paloma does that in the book. In fact, while one might think of her as foul-mouthed, the profanity in her internal monologue remains unspoken. This is not to say that Paloma is not abrasive and does not need considerable therapy. She certainly is and she certainly does. Orphanage girls must cope with potential. sexual predation, always knowing that they will be called liars or delusional if they report abuse. And there is the trauma of losing children that can drive women mad with grief. Also the danger of internalizing it when people keep telling her she is losing her mind.

Several classic novels are mentioned, among them Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, and, most significantly, Wuthering Heights, all present in the orphanage library, the last being Paloma’s favorite. (Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me.). Unsurprisingly, most have to do with orphans. (Wish she had found a way to fit in a reference to The Pirates of Penzance, as well) Thematically, there are concerns from those books that are reflected here. Sister Cynthia certainly represents a Dickensian nightmare of orphanage management. The girls in these are hassled in other ways by people at an orphanage or a placement. There are other elements of contemporary orphanage life that echo the perils of being parentless in the 19th century, including the timeless emotional pain of losing, or being left by, biological parents.

At first glance, My Sweet Girl offers us an unreliable narrator in the mold of The Girl on the Train’s Rachel Watson, another troubled soul with a drinking problem. Both generally fall into The Madman sort in the classification system to be found here. But Jayatissa takes the unreliable narrator a step further, so that there are times when you are not even certain who the narrator is, let alone the veracity of her reporting.

Unrelated Random thoughts
There is an Agatha Christie, Poirot-ish feel to the story when the facts are laid out near the end.

The preparation the school does with the orphans for the visit by the Evanses reminded me of young women in Austen novels gussying up for the arrival of potential suitors, or going to a meat-market ball.

In addition to the rage at the clerk scene that opens the book, there are other elements taken from the author’s life, some noted above. She named a character for her younger brother, Gavin.

GRIPES
We never get enough of a feel for Paloma’s actual life with the Evanses. She seems not particularly fond of them at age 30. How did that come to be? This could have used more. I had issues with how the POV was handled. It was a bit like one of those time travel stories in which it becomes impossible to keep track of who is where and when. The guilt Paloma experiences is way out of line with what she had actually done. That was a stretch for me.

SUMMARY
Nevertheless, My Sweet Girl is a fun, fast-paced thriller that will encourage you not to drink to excess and be more discriminating in selecting possible roommates. It may offer ideas for how to monetize some used clothing, and offer a perspective on how people perceive people who do not look like they do. It will maybe give you a few chills, and make your head spin like Reagan MacNeil (without the pea soup), with the twistiness of the finale. And you might be forgiven, if, when you get to the end, you feel an urge to hold up your bowl and say, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

…things that don’t feel real during the day have a way of sliding into bed with you at night.

Review posted – September 10, 2021

Publication date – September 14, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

I received an e-ARC of this book from Elisha Katz of Berkley Books in return for an honest review. But then, I may have that wrong. I had imbibed a bit more than usual the day the offer came in, and I was quite distracted by finding that unexpected body in the basement, so…maybe it was her. I am beginning to wonder. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Jayatissa was brought up in Sri Lanka, graduated from Mills College in California, moved to the UK, and now lives in Sri Lanka. She is a corporate trainer and an entrepreneur, with a chain of cookie stores. My Sweet Girl is her second novel. Her first was The Other One, released under the name Amanda Jay.

Interviews
—–Books & Boba – on Player FM – audio – #150 – Author Chat with Amanda Jayatissa by Reera Yoo and Marvin Yueh – audio – 51 minutes
The interviewers claim to have read the book but misidentify where half the book takes place. They also keep saying that it is a debut novel. It is not. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good information in here. Roll your eyes and give a listen.
—–The Big Thrill – When Nightmares Follow You Halfway Around the World by Neil Nyren
—–News line – Award winning author Amanda Jayatissa speaks of her experiences – video – 28:50 – this is from 2018 re her first novel, The Other One, with too much focus on her experience winning an award, but there is other intel in here that makes it worthwhile

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt – From Penguin Random House
—–The Nerd Daily – another excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Amaya resorts and spas – Sri Lankan Folklore:Mohini
—–Gutenberg – Wuthering Heights full text
—–Gutenberg – Anne of Green Gables full text
—–Gutenberg – Oliver Twist full text

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Filed under Reviews

He Lied, She Lied

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We’ve tried date nights, and marriage counseling, but spending more time together isn’t always the same as spending less time apart. You can’t get this close to a cliff edge without seeing the rocks at the bottom, and even if my husband doesn’t know the full story, he knows that this weekend is a last attempt to mend what got broken.
What he doesn’t know, is that if things don’t go according to plan, only one of us will be going home.

Nothing like having a positive attitude when you’re trying to salvage a troubled marriage.

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Alice Feeney – image from BBC

I reached a significant benchmark in my marriage while reading this book, a twentieth (china) wedding anniversary. It was the second time, for me. (I am nothing if not tenacious.) So, I appreciate the marital issues that arise in this wonderful thriller. (Sorry, no thriller material in either of my marriages, well, none that I will admit to in court. And no, my wife and I have no weekends planned for some remote snowy locale.) Adam and Amelia are trying to save theirs. (marriage, not thriller). A winter weekend away to a remote part of Scotland. Do or die. He is a successful screenwriter. She works at the Battersea Dogs Home. (Does that make Adam a rescue?)

We’re both pretty good at keeping up appearances and I find people see what they want to see. But behind closed doors, things have been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long time.

All right, this is getting way too close for comfort. (see first marriage noted above) The mutual discomfort in their marriage is clear, to the reader, anyway, but there are mitigating circumstances.

Adam has a neurological glitch called prosopagnosia, which means he cannot see distinguishing features on faces, including his own.

Face blindness makes it tough to deal in a very social world, if one cannot differentiate friend from foe, or lover from casual acquaintance. But, as is the case for many people with unusual qualities, he has learned to compensate. The sound of a voice, a personal scent, individual physical movements. Enough so that he found someone willing, eager even, to marry him.

Adam’s great personal screenplay is Rock Paper Scissors. It won him early acclaim (at 21) but never got made, despite repeated attempts. Now, he adapts novels by other writers, and is good at it, makes a nice living. The Rock Paper Scissors motif repeats from time to time. The notion of the story is incorporated into the structure of the novel. The game is played, sometimes with very serious stakes.

Blackwater Chapel is remote, in the Scottish Highlands (zero bars), quite beautiful landscape thereabouts, on Blackwater Loch. It is indeed a renovated place of worship. The power is not the most reliable, particularly in dire weather. Amelia had won the weekend away in a contest at work. It may not be the best of all possible times for such a visit, an eight-hour drive from London, Amelia doing ALL the driving in her Morris Minor. A tin-can antique on four wheels, is what Adam calls it. While they are there, a huge winter storm seals them in. Travel would be far too risky in the old car. They are quite effectively isolated.

Isolated, yes, but, well, maybe not entirely alone. A supposed housekeeper leaves a few notes for them. Maybe she is the person living in the only other structure within miles, a thatched cottage. There is a flock of local sheep to offer some light scares and barriers. And, of course there is Bob, their giant black lab. (Asked in an interview which of her characters she would choose if she was about to be stranded on a deserted island, Feeney did not hesitate. Bob, she said. Maybe that is because Bob, the author’s creation, so much resembles her real-life black lab, down to their mutual fear of feathers.) But is that it? There have been rumors of odd doings at the chapel, with unseen things calling the name of the more corporeal sorts who show up on the premises. And doors have an odd way of becoming locked or unlocked. There is plenty more of this sort. Mysterious sounds. Evocative scratches on walls. It is definitely a spooky joint. Enjoy!

Feeney offers us plenty of atmospherics.

Adam was right, there are no ghosts or gargoyles, but the place definitely feels spooky. Everything is made of ancient-looking stone—the walls, the ceiling, the floor—and it’s so cold down here that I can see my breath. I count three rusted metal rings embedded in the wall, and do my best not to think about what they were used for.

A basement crypt, reached via trapdoor, has been converted to a wine cellar. Is vino the only spirit down there?

The light from the old-fashioned candlestick holder he is carrying casts ghostly shadows around the bedroom, so that now I feel like I’m in a Charles Dickens novel.

Much of the inspiration for the book derived from a visit Feeney made in 2018, to a creepy renovated chapel in Scotland, a visit that featured a “Beast from the East” snowstorm, and a mysterious face in a window. Some other personal items made it into the book. Feeney does her writing in a garden shed, a characteristic she bestowed on Adam. There was a discomfiting wardrobe in Feeney’s real-world chapel. She imagined secret stairs from there, which became the basement wine-cellar/crypt, accessible only via a trap door.

The book is told from alternating POVs, Adam’s and Amelia’s. It is from these that we know their marriage is in trouble. But wait, there’s more! A third character (fourth if you count Bob) is introduced about a quarter the way in, Robin, residing near the chapel. She is up to something. It seems that there is certainly madness there, but is there a method to match? Finally, there are wifely letters written on the annual wedding anniversary, but never given to Adam. These let us follow the history of his marriage through his wife’s eyes. They are introduced by a “word of the year” that sets the tone for the chapters to come. They also note the category of gift that is considered traditional for each year. (A partial list is in EXTRA STUFF) In each of these entries the gift, at least the sort of gift, is significant in the ensuing narrative.

There is a layer-by-layer unveiling of secrets, from both of them, which gives us a better look at who they truly are. (More of a He-Lied-She-Lied than the more traditional His-v-Hers perspectives.) Well, from all three, if we add Robin. Lots of excellent, very hairpin turn stuff. (Keep both hands on the wheel at all times) Maybe not as dangerous as riding the Do-Dodonpa, but wearing a neck-brace might not be a bad idea while reading towards the end. You may hear yourself utter more than a few “wait, what?s” There are some twists at the finale that seem inter-dimensional in their impact.

So, who is out to get whom? Is anyone, really? Are they both there to salvage their marriage or torpedo it? And what is making all the strangeness at the chapel happen? Is it really haunted? Will they both make it out alive? Will anyone? Will Adam’s screenplay ever get produced?

I do not really have any gripes with the book. It maybe asks us to suspend a bit too much disbelief, no biggie. But I take serious issue with the marketing, which I believe to be dishonest. I will not say what it is about this that is not true, or is unfairly misleading, but after you read the book, I urge you to take a close look at this. You will see for yourself. Having an unreliable narrator is one thing, but this seems a step too far to me. The ff is from Macmillan’s page for the book.

Things have been wrong with Mr and Mrs Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife. 

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts–paper, cotton, pottery, tin–and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

Rock Paper Scissors is a delight of a read. Feeney does an excellent job of inserting hooks at chapter ends to make sure it is a challenge for you to either get up and do things that need doing, or turn off the light and go to sleep.

It seems like it would be a good idea to dress warmly when you read this. The cold of the Feeney’s fictional world might give you a chill. A hot toddy might be an appropriate accompanying refreshment, or maybe some Scotch whiskey. And make sure that neck brace is firmly in place when you are entering your final chunk of reading time. You will need it.

The first match I strike goes out almost instantly—it’s an old box.
I use the second to try and get my bearings, but I still can’t see the steps, and I’m struggling to get enough air into my lungs.
The third match I strike briefly illuminates part of the wall, and I notice all the scratch marks on the surface. It looks like someone, or something, once tried to claw their way out of here.
I try to stay calm, remember to breathe, but then the flame burns the tips of my fingers and I drop the final match on the floor.
Everything is black.
And then I hear it again. My name being whispered. Right behind me.
Amelia. Amelia. Amelia.
My breaths are too shallow, but I can’t control them and I think I’m going to faint. No matter what direction I look in, all I can see is darkness. Then I hear the sound of scratching.

Review posted – September 3, 2021

Publication date – September 7, 2021

I received a free ARC of Rock Paper Scissors from Macmillan in an exchange for an honest review, and the keys to my country retreat for a few days.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by. There are many more where this one came from.

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

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

Feeney was a journalist with the BBC for fifteen years, where she worked as a reporter, news editor, arts and entertainment producer, stealing time where she could to get in some original writing. Rock Paper Scissors is her fourth novel. She has been wildly successful.

As per Variety, the producer of The Crown will be transforming Rock Paper Scissors into a Netflix mini-series.

Interviews
—–Washington Independent – Author Q&A – An Interview with Alice Feeney by Adriana Delgado – from 2018 – on her planning and unreliable narrators
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Alice Feeney by Elyse Dinh-McCrillis – from 2017 – short but has some nice backgr0und and personal elements

I work in my garden shed now with my cowriter, a giant black Labrador who is scared of feathers.

—–Mystery and Thriller Mavens – 8/30/2021 – Bestselling Author Alice Feeney Hosted by Sara DiVello – Video – 41:06

Unrelated aside
A scene in an old tower made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Anniversary Gifts – list from Hallmark
• 1st Anniversary: Paper
• 2nd Anniversary: Cotton
• 3rd Anniversary: Leather
• 4th Anniversary: Fruit or Flowers
• 5th Anniversary: Wood
• 6th Anniversary: Candy or Iron
• 7th Anniversary: Wool or Copper
• 8th Anniversary: Pottery or Bronze
• 9th Anniversary: Willow or Pottery
• 10th Anniversary: Tin or Aluminum
• 11th Anniversary: Steel
• 12th Anniversary: Silk or Linen
• 13th Anniversary: Lace
• 14th Anniversary: Gold Jewelry
• 15th Anniversary: Crystal
• 16th Anniversary: Coffee or Tea
• 17th Anniversary: Wine or Spirits
• 18th Anniversary: Appliances
• 19th Anniversary: Jade
• 20th Anniversary: China

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Filed under Fiction, Reviews, Thriller

The Slasher Story Goes Meta

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“You sure you should be working around kids?” Jade asks. “Or even around, you know, living people?”
“Tried the morgue in Boise,” he says. “There was . . . an incident. Ask your dad about it sometime, he was there.”
Jade waits for him to guffaw or chuckle, because this has to be a joke, doesn’t it?

“Can’t I just like horror because it’s great? Does there have to be some big explanation?”

Before you sit down to read Stephen Graham Jones’s most recent novel (well, this week, anyway. The man produces King-ian, Asimov-ian volumes of work), My Heart is a Chainsaw, you might want to prepare a large bowl of popcorn, not that microwave crap, actual popcorn, kernels from a jar or bag into a pot with pre-heated oil, and a lid ready to pop over the top, to keep your kitchen floor from getting covered with flying bits. If you’re like me, there will be a second burner dedicated to melting a slab of butter. Once the popping stops, pour some or all of this heavenly treat into a large bowl. (Well it does not have to be too large as you are probably reading alone.) then drip the melted butter across the top, mix it up a bit. Open up a shaker of popcorn salt and apply. This calls for an oversize cold-drink for help in washing it down. It really should be a Friday or Saturday night. And why go to all this trouble for a book? Because Stephen Graham Jones is taking you to the movies.

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Cutting edge author, Stephen Graham Jones, on his way to work – image from 5280 Magazine – Photo by Aaron Colussi

You may or may not have been around in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, or some of the other decades noted here, but videos of the films made back then have been available for a long time and formed a major part of Jones’s cinematic education as a young person. His life was considerably enriched from seeing a lot of horror movies, slasher films in particular. He loves them.

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Adrienne King as Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th – image from movieactors.com

In this book, SGJ offers up an introductory class on the genre, or sub-genre. (Can’t say how closely it might mimic the course he taught on the subject in his day gig as a college professor. But I would love to see the syllabus for that.) in the form of chapters titled Slasher 101. These remind us, for example, that the slasher is always driven by revenge. His rage is not mindless. That there is usually a significant gap between the commission of the crime that is being avenged and the execution of that mission. That there is always a “final girl,” the purest of heart, who ultimately (usually) either escapes or bests the baddie, for the moment, anyway. In his 2015 novel, Aquarium, David Vann does something similar, calling attention to the structural girders being put in place as he places them, in his case for the literary novel form. Reads like these are always extra fun.

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Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers – in Scream – image from Den of Geek

As Jones walks us through the stages in a slasher film, he echoes the tropes in the novel through his lead, Jade Daniels, a damaged seventeen-year-old Native girl who has seen and caused a huge amount of trouble. She seems to be in conflict with the world more or less constantly, but she is not a bad kid. She does janitorial work for the county. She is smart, resourceful, and a huge fan of horror, particularly slasher films, toting with her Jones’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. She is maybe a bit too obsessed with this stuff. I mean, if your only tool is a hammer, every challenge begins to look like a nail. But what if you have, by pure chance, made yourself the perfect tool for this very prominent, thin piece of metal sticking straight up out of your town. A bloated tourist body floats to the top of the lake and blood starts flowing like the elevator at the Overlook. Jade knows, or at least thinks she knows, what’s coming.

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JLC at Laurie Strode in Halloween – you don’t get to choose your family – image from Den of Geek

She writes reports (the twelve Slasher 101 chapters) for a favorite teacher, one Mister Holmes (Grady, (which reminded me of Delbert Grady of The Shining fame) not Sherlock), each one explaining one or more of the tropes of horror films. Each trope is summoned into being in the real world, of course, making this very meta.

Metafiction is a form of fiction which emphasises its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the audience to be aware they are reading or viewing a fictional work. – definition from Wiki

Jade lives in Proofrock, Idaho, proud possessor of several of the elements native to slasher flicks. Teenagers, of course. A lake (Indian Lake) with its own historical spook, Stacey Graves, bent on avenging wrongs done to her family,

Stacey Stacey Stacey Graves
Born to put you in your grave
You see her in the dark of night
And once you do you’re lost from sight
Look for water, look for blood
Look for footprints in the mud
You never see her walk on grass
Don’t slow down, she’ll get your–

a camp on the lake with its own sanguinary history, and LOL name, Camp Blood, as least that’s what everyone in town calls it. Fifty years ago it earned that designation with extreme prejudice.

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Robert Englund as Freddie Krueger – from Nightmare 3 – What a Rush! – image from Screen Rant

There is not a lot going on in Proofrock, (which MUST BE a reference to T.S. Eliot’s first published poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which, according to Wiki, is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.”) Jade provides that inner take here. She certainly experiences isolation, and endures frustration and impotence, not to mention personal abuse. Jade is both wishing for the slasher to be real and for him not to be real. Great, if it is. You were right all along. Take a bow. On the other hand, you are likely to be killed. Hmmm, decisions, decisions. She is actually eager for the inevitable bloodbath to begin, finding this strangely exciting. Well, maybe not so strange for a kid with suicidal impulses. She’s got her reasons.

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Jane Levy (yes, that Zoe) as Mia Allen in Evil Dead 2013 – Image from Screenrant

Jade is a Cassandra (another slasher film trope) trying to tell everyone that dire days lie ahead, but no one believes her. The new wrinkle in Proofrock, Idaho is the arrival of The Founders, a group of billionaire families who managed to have some of the national forest on the other side of the lake made un-national, and have begun building an enclave, Terra Nova. Yachts and smuggler boats have begun to appear on the lake, homes are being erected. And the daughter of the alpha male of that crowd befriends Jade. Letha Mondragon (are we meant to think or Arthur Pendragon here?) fits right in with Jade’s narrative. She is the supreme final girl. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by Carol J. Clover in 1992.

The original meaning of “final girl”, as described by Clover in 1992, is quite narrow. Clover studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s (which is considered the golden age of the genre) and defined the final girl as a female who is the sole survivor of the group of people (usually youths) who are chased by a villain, and who gets a final confrontation with the villain (whether she kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer), and who has such a “privilege” because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends). – from Wiki

Think Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th, Laurie Strode in Halloween, Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street and on and on and on.

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Sigourney as Ripley in Alien – Get away from her, you bitch! – image from Yahoo! Entertainment

The good-girl element of the final girl trope eased over time, offering more kick-ass than kiss-ass, with final girls like Ripley in the Alien series, or Jamie Lee Curtis sticking it to Jason in Halloween. Jade spots Letha as the final girl of the upcoming carnival of blood. She is a really good person, and an actual model, with unbelievable skin. She is athletic, morally strong, and seems to have been sent over from central casting. She is also unbelievably hot, and Jade has a bit of a crush on her. Nevertheless, Jade determines to do everything in her power to see to it that Letha has the weapons and knowledge she needs to go to battle in the inevitable final bloodbath, aka The Body Dump.

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Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – image from BitchMedia

But we know, or at least suspect, since the slasher film story is usually told from the perspective of the final girl, that maybe Letha is not the one.

I wanted to push back against the notion of the final girl being a supermodel, valedictorian, or babysitter. Since the 1970s, they’ve all been Jennifer Love Hewitt types. For many girls and women, that’s an impossible ideal. The book’s main character, Jade, has dealt with feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Also, most of the victims are rich and entitled white guys, not 17-year-old cheerleaders. – from the 5280 interview

The mystery is who (or what) is perpetrating mayhem, and why. That satisfies the need, or, certainly, a desire, for a mystery. Slasher movie bloodlettings are acts of revenge. Ok. So, what is it that is being revenged, why, and by whom? The how is where movie directors and novelist get to come up with creative ways to pare back, sometimes waaaaay back, the character list.

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Heather Langengkamp as Nancy Thompson in Friday the 13th – image from StopButton

Jones always keeps an eye on social content, payload that arrives with the story. It, or at least some of it, usually has to do with Native people and their relationship with the white world in which they are embedded. Very real-world stuff. No Magic Indians need apply. The presenting issue here is gentrification, an invasion by the Uber-rich into a very working class area, upsetting everything, taking public land for private use, trying to buy their way into acceptance, while toting along a significant shortage of moral concern. There is also the existence of racist elements in the town and the Native people getting the lesser end of things economically.

When people in Proofrock can direct their binoculars across the water to see how the rich and famous live, that’s only going to make them suddenly aware of how they’re not living, with their swayed-in fences, their roofs that should have been re-shingled two winters ago, their packed-dirt driveways, their last decade’s hemlines and shoulder pads, because fashion takes a while to make the climb to eight thousand feet.

Secondary characters run a gamut. Some are cannon fodder, of course, but there is a nice collection of understandable town characters. Jade’s teacher, Holmes, is wonderfully understanding, and has plenty of quirk (and anger) to support it. The town sheriff is a remarkably understanding sort, with a soft spot for Jade. He may not understand, or accept what she tells him (she is a Cassandra, after all, and there is the very real possibility that he might be hiding something) but he seems to be quite well-intentioned. Her father is a horror, and his bff may be even worse. There is sympathy for Jade in surprising places. They know something we do not. The Founders are mostly cardboard cutouts, which is fine. And then there is Letha (last name not Weapon). While presented as impossibly perfect, she is the one member of that clan given a closer look. Is she or isn’t she what Jade sees her to be, a paragon of final girlhood?

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Jennifer Love Hewitt as Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer – image from ScreenRant

Throughout the novel, there is a pervasive sense of humor. The quote at the top of the review is a prime example of that. There is more. Not sayin’ you’re gonna shoot your beverage of choice out your nose, but there is plenty here that will make you smile.

…if you don’t have those staged resets, those laughs, then horror just becomes the flat screech, and that’s no fun. – from the GQ interview

GRIPES
Not much. The deus was messing with his ex, machina, a bit too much for my taste. I could not fathom why Jade was not more curious when a stranger’s cell phone falls into her hands. And I was not entirely thrilled with the last bit of the ending. (But then, SGJ has written a sequel, so, maybe put a hold on that.) But these are minor concerns. My Heart is a Chainsaw is both a jaw-dropping, brilliant homage to the slasher genre, and a bonafide member of the club.

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Sharni Vinson as Erin Harson in You’re Next – image from Wicked Horror

So, when you read this, takes notes, consider all that is going on. There will be a test. Pass/Fail. Pass, and you gain three college credits toward your degree. Fail? Well, trust me, you really, really do not want to fail.

She’s everything Jade always wished she could have been, had she not grown up where she did, how she did, with who she did.
It’s going to be epic, the final battle, the final girl against slasher high noon.
Unless Jade’s just making it all up, she reminds herself.

Review posted – August 27, 2021

Publication date – August 31, 2021

I received an eARE of My Heart is a Chainsaw from Saga Press of Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review and some extra-strength fishing-hooks. Thanks to S&S, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Interviews
—–GQ – 8/26/21 – Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones’s New Nightmare by Colin Groundwater
—–Locus Magazine – 9/9/21 – Stephen Graham Jones: Slasher Cycle
—–Nightmare Magazine – April 2017 (Issue 55) Interview: Stephen Graham Jones by Lisa Morton
—–Nuovo Magazine – Stephen Graham Jones Battles Stereotypes and Serial Killers in His Breakout Novel by James Grainger – about The Only good Indians but still interesting for Jones’s take on the world
—–Vol, 1 Brooklyn – MORNING BITES: STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES INTERVIEWED, VIC GODARD, FRED THOMAS’S MUSIC, BILL GUNN, AND MORE – August 11, 2021
—–5280 Magazine – August 2021 – Colorado Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones Is Back With a Killer Follow-Up by Philip Clapham

The horror genre is full of books and movies that make a political statement, like the films Dawn of the Dead and The Purge. Which is scarier: real-life terrors or fictional ones?
I think for the last four or five years, we’ve seen people doing reprehensible things and then not being punished for them. The slasher genre is basically a justice fantasy. But the bad thing about living in a slasher world where wrongs are punished is that they’re punished brutally. You might catch a machete to the head.

—–Bull – Stephen Graham Jones by David Tromblay

Before The Only Good Indians, I’d done two slasher novels, I guess—Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl—but I hadn’t said even close to all I wanted to say in and with and around the slasher. So, I committed to the slasher. I wrote this one, then another, and another. But I also wrote a haunted house novel. Oh, and a slasher novella, I guess. And I guess a ghost novella. I just love all the parts of horror, but the slasher, the slasher’s really special for me. I like the sense of justice in it. I like how bad deeds are punished. That’s not the world we live in, but, while reading a slasher, we can pretend for a little bit…

—–Montana Press Monthly – April 2020 Rez Gothic: Stephen Graham Jones by Jay MacDonald – not specific to this book, but good on SGJ
—–Goodreads newsletter – Meet the Writers Behind Those Truly Terrifying Books
—–Colorado Public Radio – Ten Stories Novelist Stephen Graham Jones Says Will Make You Afraid Of The Dark by Stephanie Wolf –
10 stories Jones says are great gateway reads into the horror fiction genre:
• “The Black Cat” by Edgar Alan Poe
• “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
• “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft
• “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
• “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
• “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby
• “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
• “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler
• “The Jaunt” by Stephen King
• “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe R. Lansdale

My reviews of (sadly, only two) previous books by Jones
—–Mongrels
—–The Only Good Indians

The List
I started keeping track of the names of the mentioned flicks once I had read a bit, so my number is probably not close to the actual total, but even with not beginning from the beginning I came up with 93, the list that follows. I have seen, maybe, 23, enough to be able to follow along without feeling that I was missing out on too much. Not all are slasher films, but all 93 are horror of one sort or another. If I made any mistakes in entering the titles please let me know and I will make the needed repairs.

Alien
Alien 3
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Alone in the Dark
April Fools Day
Bay of Blood – from 1971 – a possible grandfather of the slasher genre
Black Christmas
Blue Steel
Burial Ground
The Burning
The Cabin in the Woods
Camp Blood
Candy Man
Child’s Play
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
Cold Prey
Cold Prey 2
Cold Prey 3
The Craft
Cropsy
Cry Wolf
Curtains
Cutting Class
Dead & Buried
Dead Calm
Deep Star Six, Leviathan
Demons
Donkey Punch
The Dorm that Dripped Blood
Evil Dead
The Exorcist
Exorcist III
Fatal Attraction
Final Destination
Final Destinations
Fire in the Sky
Friday the Thirteenth
Friday the Thirteenth Part II
Friday the 13th Part III
Friday the Thirteenth – The final chapter
Ghost Ship
Girls Nite Out
Grizzly, 1976
Halloween
Halloween III
Hannibal Lecter
Happy Birthday to Me
Hell Raiser
High Tension
The Hitcher
Home Sweet Home
I Know What You Did Last Summer
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Jason Takes Manhattan
Jaws
Just Before Dawn
Kristy
The Land that Time Forgot
Last House on the left
Lord of Illusions
Mausoleum
Mortuary
Mother’s Day
My Bloody Valentine
New Nightmare
The Night of the Hunter
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Poltergeist 2
Popcorn
The Prey
Prom night II
Prophecy
Prowler
Reeker
Ringu
Road House – 1988
Rosemary’s Baby
Scream
Scream 2
Slaughter High
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
Sleepaway Camp II
SS Lazarus
Stage Fright
Terminator
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Triangle
Trick or Treat 1986
Twisted Nightmare
Virus
Wishmaster

In my post-posting travels I came across a site that provides a much more inclusive, and visually appealing, list. Letterboxd shows a total of 154 film mentions (not all of which are horror films, per se) I saw 37 of those.

Articles on Final Girls
The Final Girl is a trope that has come in for some criticism over the years. Below are several articles that address this, and the changes that have taken place in how Final Girls are portrayed from the 1970s to the present. If you know some good pieces on this subject, I would be happy to add them to this list.

—–NY Times – October 22, 2015 – In Horror Films, the ‘Final Girl’ Is a Survivor to the Core by Erik Piepenburg
—–Wiki – Final Girl
—–Cinema de Merde – Is the Final Girl an Excuse?
—–Pretty Scary – Gender Roles within Scary Movies by Alex Boles
—–Ax Wound – Teenie Kill & The Final Girl by Hannah D. Forman

Clover argues we shouldn’t just ask ourselves: “Does this film depict violence against women?” but rather, “Why does it do so? From whose point of view? Creating sympathy with whom? And what final message?” The answers to these questions no doubt are complex and reveal much about how we view the sexes, the double standards that underlie our behaviors and social mores we are brought up to follow.

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Filed under Horror, Reviews

True-Crime Family

book cover

My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

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

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

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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Filed under Reviews

The Burning Times

book cover

The wind slammed against the Harding-era transmission tower, ripping a heavy electrical line from its brittle iron hook. It was 6:15 A.M. The 143-pound, 115-kilovolt braided aluminum wire—known as a jumper cable—fell through the air. A piece of the rusted hook fell with it. The energized line produced a huge bolt of electricity, reaching temperatures up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit and zapping the steel tower like lightning as it charred the pillar black. Droplets of molten metal sprayed into the dry grass. That’s all it took.

…this was how the fire spread so quickly: It wasn’t a single unbroken front but a hail of embers.

Welcome to the new normal.

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sign – may you find paradise to be all its name implies – Image from KQED

In November 2018, one hundred fifty miles north of San Francisco, the town of Paradise became the epicenter of what would be called The Camp Fire. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history. (The Dixie Fire that was raging at the time this review was prepared had not yet been controlled, so we do not yet know if it was even worse.) The Camp Fire does not even make the top ten list for the most acres destroyed by fire. That dubious honor goes to the August Complex fire of 2020, which burned over a million acres. The Camp Fire destroyed only 153,336 acres. But in other metrics it leads the way. Almost 19,000 structures were destroyed. The property loss was over $10 billion, (I have seen a report indicating that the cost exceeded $16 billion) about 10 percent larger than the 2017 Tubbs Fire, the former title holder. Most importantly, the official death toll from the Camp Fire was 85, an undercount of at least fifty according to the author’s tally of wrongful death suits lodged against PG&E, and her knowledge of deaths that did not fit into the very restrictive official definition. In looking at lists of the worst wildfires ever, concentrated as it is in the last few years, and with no likelihood that conditions will improve any time soon, it is a certainty that we, as a planet, the USA as a nation, and California in particular are living in a powderkeg and giving off sparks.

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Lizzy Johnson – Image from her site

Johnson had been the fire reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the Camp Fire. (She has since moved on to the Washington Post)

…this book is the product of more than five hundred interviews and nearly five years of full-time wildfire coverage. I even enrolled in a professional firefighting academy to better understand fire…It’s the product of coming to love a community that I embedded in: spending hours strolling across Paradise on my evening walks, buying ice cream sandwiches from the Holiday Market, eating more containers of green curry from Sophia’s Thai than I can count. The people whose lives I’ve chronicled in this book offered me unfettered access to their day-to-day lives without any expectations. They were not compensated for their time. – from Acknowledgments

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Burned vehicles during Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif. on Thursday, November 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

She even stayed with some of them. Johnson provides a wealth of detail. Not just two dimensional, or even three, but adding time into the mix to make for four. We get personal histories of people who were impacted by the fire, specifically in how they came to be there, and the history of the place from before the 1850 goldrush. This includes some history on the Native American Konkow tribe, with lore that addresses the challenges of coping with wildfire. She also looks at PG&E’s history of poor line maintenance, and the legal system’s history of failing to make them pay for their malfeasance or force them to adequately change their ways.

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Timeline – from the National Institute for Standards and Technology

As for the structure of the book, I was reminded of The Longest Day, an epic 1962 war film that told, from a variety of perspectives, the story of the D-Day invasion of Europe in World War II. By knitting the diverse experiences together we get a sense of the overall event that would have been impossible in a more linear Boy-Meets-War type narrative. Paradise is a lot like that. We jump from the desperate bus-driver to the town manager to the maintenance man at the hospital to the pilot trying to dump flame retardant on the blaze, to the people on their off-road vehicles trying to find a location in which to shelter that had no combustible foliage, to the police chief, to the town manager, to the fire chiefs, to a woman who gave birth by Caesarian section that very day, and winds up being driven around by a stranger, trying to find her husband and a way out. and on. But somehow, the book never felt disjointed. Each person is given sufficient detail. We get to know them some, not too much, but enough to care. And we track their progress over that terrible day. I found it helpful while reading to have a browser tab open to a Google map of Paradise so I could follow each person on their fraught peregrinations. Johnson tracks the progress of the fire, from its ignition by the downed power line at 6:15 am on November 8, 2018, step by step. She tracks her residents through that day to where they are now, in August 2020.

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Fire tornado explainer – from the San Francisco Chronicle

Johnson’s focus is on the personal. There is a reason for that.

Early in her fire reporting, Johnson noticed that many fire stories—hers included—sounded similar; they often relied on the same beats, the same kinds of quotes, the same tropes. (A woman who left her wedding ring at home, for example, only for it to burn.) Johnson began to wonder if disaster fatigue happened when stories felt predictable. So she changed her approach to make the fire secondary, a “supporting character” in a more surprising and nuanced human story—and readers paid attention. Too often, she said, coverage tries to hit people over the head with a “climate change caused this” moral. “I’m now thinking more like, What does climate change feel like? If we changed the model, maybe people will listen more, and we can do more work with our storytelling. – from the Columbia Journalism Review interview

One can only hope.

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The Camp Fire burns in the hills on November 10, 2018 near Big Bend, California. Fueled by high winds and low humidity the Camp Fire ripped through the town of Paradise – image from SF Gate

Simple human error accounts for some of the carnage. A public emergency warning system failed to reach half the residents because it had never been tested locally, and a systems flaw had not been detected. And our old bugaboo of inadequate communication and coordination among the responsible emergency authorities was not helpful. In the larger context, it is the myopic focus on immediate financial or political motives that has created much of this problem. For example, a Code Red system for alerting people of an emergency is privately owned, requiring people to subscribe. Only 11% did.

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from the Camp Fire – image from Cal Fire

Maybe, after a four-lane road had been paved on the western edge of town several years before, cutting two lanes from the Skyway, providing extra parking for downtown businesses and removing the “expressway” feel of the road, ignoring pleas that this would be a deadly choice the next time a major fire hit, might, just might have been an incredibly bad, short-term decision with deadly long-term consequences. Someone in Paradise should be nominated for the Larry Vaughn Award for exceptional short-sightedness in the face of mortal peril.

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NASA shot of the fire

The experience of reading this book was unlike that of anything else I have read in recent memory. The closest I can think of is Five Days at Memorial, several years back. How quickly, how easily our civilization can be overwhelmed, our safety completely compromised.

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Evacuating the hospital – image from The Daily Mail

There were moments when I had to step away from reading, and just breathe, because the specifics of the fire were so upsetting. The stories Johnson tells are heart-wrenching, and often horrifying. It was like reading a real-life end-times, zombie-apocalypse novel. Someone hiding from the flames under a vehicle, pokes a hole in a tire just to get breathable air. After a victim of the fire is lifted from a flat surface, a layer of molten flesh remained. Just writing these words brings a sob.

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A Cal Fire pilot maneuver’s an S2-T tanker to make a drop on the Walbridge fire at sunset near Healdsburg, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. – Image from the Press Democrat – photo credit Kent Porter – What it would have looked like had planes not been called back due to 70 mph winds and horrific down and updrafts

Another part of the experience was learning new things, many of them dire, like the fact that trees were becoming so hot that the water and sap inside them heated to a point where they basically exploded. Things like the temperature becoming so high that metallic elements in the ground solidified into shards, and propane tanks became missiles and major sources of shrapnel. AT&T’s landlines melted. Internet service cut out as communications hardware on towers was destroyed. Things like the underground pipes carrying the town’s water becoming so hot that they melted, leaching carcinogenic materials into the water supply. (Repair/replace cost $50 million.) Things like the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from this one fire matched the output of the entire state’s factories and traffic in a week. Things like the incineration of so many structures created clouds of toxic sub-2.5 micron particles that lodge in the lungs of any breathing thing. There are plenty more things to be learned here, not all of them quite so extreme. But all of them worth knowing. She looks at the topography, and how that impacts wind currents, the changes in the local flora, the psychology of disaster response. The scientific explanations in the book were clear and informative

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Firefighter Jose Corona monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire burns – image and text from SF Gate

It is easy to engage with the folks Johnson profiles, and root for them to survive. It helps that we can presume that all of the primary actors here make it out, else Johnson would not have been able to interview them, and we would not be reading their stories. But she succeeds in showing us what global warming means on the ground, to actual human beings, over 125 of whom are no longer with us, and many of whom have been scarred, physically and or emotionally, for life.

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shot from the fire – image from The Daily Mail

There is very little mention of political party here. Local representation is heavily Republican. Everyone burns at the same temperature, but maybe voting for the party of climate change denial while living in a tinderbox might be seen as somehow ironic, if not feckless and arrogant. Trump popped by for a photo op and a chance to blame Californians for the fire, claiming that they should have been raking out the leaves in the woods. (The largest wildland property owner in California is the federal government, by the way. The state is in charge of about 3% of it.) The town voted for him in 2016, but by 2020 had seen quite enough orange light and switched, at least at the presidential level.

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Sheriffs yell to drivers to evacuate the area off of Pentz Road during the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

As this book and countless other reports make clear, we have a wildfire problem. Serious research into the causes, both global and local, has been done. More is ongoing, and there will, for sure, be more ahead. Even more than has already been done, public policies will have to be crafted to encourage, and where possible, mandate best practices, and enforce restrictions on private and public use of land in the wildland-urban interface. There are many facets to this, from power line protection, roadway construction, widening, or even closing, development requirements, such as mandating fire-safe materials for new construction, and supporting retrofitting older buildings. Communications among first responders has been improved, but much remains to be done. Total deregulation, allowing property owners to do whatever they want with their property can very concretely endanger the property and lives of all those around them. We have an obligation to each other to not be totally indifferent about the safety of our communities and neighbors. Common sense regulation should be implemented. In the wider view, gaining new knowledge of areas that are likely to burn should inform policy on where new development is allowed at all, where further development should be halted, and where rebuilding burned areas is ill-advised. ( Between 1970 and 1999, 94 percent of the roughly three thousand houses destroyed by wildfires in California had been rebuilt in the same spot—and often burned down a second or third time.) Your freedom to do whatever the frack you want ends where my charred skin begins. Insurance companies, with the most to lose financially, have already made getting fire insurance tougher, if it is available at all, in fire-prone communities.

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Cars escape the Camp Fire as they drive south on Pentz Road in Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 – image and text from SF Gate

I love this book. It is among my favorites for the year. I have much praise to offer and very few gripes. While I understand that the author’s intent was to make global warming on-the-street real, and appreciate that she has succeeded in doing just that, I would have liked a bit more on the long-term medical impact of wildfires, and the politics of the local public officials, particularly their views on global warming.

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A bulldozer dislodged abandoned vehicles from a blocked roadway after the fire. The scene suggests that a burnover, a dangerous event where fire cuts evacuees off from escape routes, took place. There were at least 19 over the course of the fire. – image and text from National Institute for Standards and Technology

This book is mind-blowing and heart-breaking, one of the best books of 2021, it will grab you by the heart while filling your brain with new important information. Massive fires are the new normal and Johnson shows us all what that means to real people on the unbearably hot ground. This is a must-read!

California had always burned—as much as 5.5 to 19 million acres annually in prehistoric times, or up to 19 percent of the state’s land. Flames were typical of the changing seasons as rainstorms and blizzards. The same swath of hillside blackened by the Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire of 1991 had also burned in 1923, 1970, and 1980. But residents were quick to forget the past, and amnesia was part of California’s identity. The state legislature left it up to local governments to protect their constituents, and thus development continued, and more and more homes became kindling. – from the NIST report

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Paradise Lost – image from National Geographic

Review posted – August 13, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I first learned of this book from MC at GoodReads, who directed me to Cai, who got in touch with Crown. They sent me an ARE in return for a fair review. My thanks to you all.

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

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages. An old site of hers is still up.

Interviews
—–MUST READ !!! – Colombia Journalism Review – Spring 2020 – The Heat Reporter by Lauren Markham
—–This American Life – Boulder v. Hill – Johnson is interviewed in one segment – audio – the transcript
—–Longform –- 1/9/2019 – Episode 325: Lizzie Johnson – audio – 55:41
—– Paradise: One town’s struggle to survive an American wildfire by Holly Quan and Dan Mitchinson – Audio – 4 min

Items of Interest from the author
—–Muck Rack – links to eight stand-alone articles written by Johnson
—–SFGate – 12/8/2017 – Ojai, flames, horses – and a cowboy who rides in to the rescue
—–SFGate – June 24, 2018 – Wildfire forces thousands to evacuate in Lake County
—–SFGate – July 2, 2018 – County Fire ‘growing a lot faster’ than past blazes, spreads glow and ash over Bay Area
—– San Francisco Chronicle – 11/13/2018 – The unprecedented devastation of the Camp Fire
—–San Francisco Chronicle – 12/5/2018 – 150 Minutes of Hell
—–Finding Kyle – a California Journalism Award winner about an eighteen-year-old’s suicide
—–Crown Publishing Group – Journalist Lizzie Johnson explains why wildfires are so prevalent – 1:36

Items of Interest
====================News
—– PBS News Hour – Paradise Rebuilds a Year After the Camp Fire – Video – 2:47
—–The Daily Mail – 10/22/19 – 911 operator reveals she told locals NOT to evacuate their homes at the start of the California Paradise fire that killed 85 people – because firefighters didn’t think that the flames would cross the canyon
—–The Guardian – 7/31/21 – In the shadow of Paradise, nearby residents make uneasy peace with fire by Dani Anguiano
—–The Guardian – 8/2/21 – Wildfire fighters advance against biggest US blaze amid dire warnings by Gabrielle Canon –state of the Bootleg Fire when the article was posted
—– The Guardian – 8/12/21 – ‘The fire moved around it’: success story in Oregon fuels calls for prescribed burns by Maanvi Singh

====================Background
—– Konkow Valley Band of Maidu Indians – History of the Konkow Indian Tribe
—–Wiki – Adventist Health Feather River – hospital referenced in the book
—–Cal Fire home page
—–Top 20 Largest California Wildfires
—–National Institute of Standards and Technology – New Timeline of Deadliest California Wildfire Could Guide Lifesaving Research and Action
“The Camp Fire was the costliest disaster worldwide in 2018 and, having caused 85 deaths and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, it became both the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, two records the fire still holds today.” – Article was posted 2/8/21.
—–NIST Technical Note 2135 – A Case Study of the Camp Fire – Fire Progression Timeline – In addition to the analysis, there is a fabulous acronym list in here

The Camp Fire consumed 153 336 acres and destroyed 18 804 structures in the towns of Paradise, Magalia, and Concow—equivalent to three times the losses of the 2017 Tubbs Fire (5636 structures) or six times the losses of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire (2900 structures). Eighty-five percent of the structures in the Town of Paradise were destroyed. In addition to the destroyed structures, the Camp Fire damaged a total of 754 structures. The fire resulted in 5 documented major firefighter injuries and 85 civilian fatalities. Afterwards, 3266 missing persons were located. The fire was declared 100 % contained on November 25, 2018, after burning for 18 days. Initial estimates suggested the Camp Fire would be the most destructive fire in California history at a cost of $11 billion to $13 billion in losses and $3 billion for debris clean up. A more recent assessment determined that the Camp Fire was the costliest natural disaster worldwide in 2018, with overall losses of $16.6 billion. – from the NIST report

====================Videos
—–Frontline – Fire in Paradise
—–A different link to the same video – 54:17
—–Rebuilding Paradise – documentary by Ron Howard – 90 minutes

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