Monthly Archives: June 2014

Crooked River by Valerie Geary

book cover Fifteen-year-old Sam McAlister and her ten-year-old sister, Ollie, have had a crap summer. On the Fourth of July their mother died of a heart attack in Eugene, Oregon. They are staying now with their father, whom they call “Bear.” He has been living for some time in a teepee on a piece of rented land outside the thriving metropolis of Terrebonne, OR, doing odd jobs, raising bees, and mostly keeping to himself. Normally they would have spent only August with their dad, but now it is looking like a more permanent arrangement, if, that is, their mother’s parents can be persuaded that he is up to the task. And just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse…

We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where the Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere. Her emerald-green blouse was torn half open and her dark, pleated skirt was bunched around her waist, revealing skin puckered and gray, legs bloated and bruised. Her hair writhed like black snakes in the current.

Bear, the odd outsider, is, of course, suspected, arrested, and it looks like he will be successfully railroaded, but Sam has faith in her father. Her sister has something more.

I see things no one else does.
I see them there and wish I didn’t. I want to tell and can’t.

Ollie calls the ghosts she sees The Shimmering. It would be too easy if Ollie could simply report what the ghosts only she sees clue her in on. But Ollie has not spoken since her mother passed several weeks ago. And of course there is a full dose of the Cassandra Syndrome at play, as even when Ollie is able to communicate, no one believes her.

The missing father has been a literary trope for quite some time, in adult as well as in YA literature. The one that jumps up for me is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. While Sam’s father did not vanish while working on a tesseract, and is not actually gone here, at least until he is arrested, he had been largely absent from his children’s lives for many years. Now, in the face of the calamitous loss of their mother, the girls must contend with the possible loss of their father too. There is probably a message here about the need for both the urban (mom) and the natural (mountain man father). Sam is called upon to utilize both her city and country skills to try to save Bear, and in fact engages in a very Campbellian quest to find out who he really is. She must find her inner strength and overcome, or fail before, some very real-world perils in attempting to bring back the knowledge gained in her quest, and put it to use, as she comes of age. But if you want to see her as just getting in touch with her inner Nancy Drew, that works too.

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Valerie Geary – from her Twitter page

The cast includes a kindly elderly couple on whose land Bear had been living, suitable grandparent sorts. There is a young man of diverse intentions. Sam feels drawn to him. Ollie sees him more truly than her sister does. A somewhat reasonable sheriff offers a glint of understanding; a somewhat peculiar artist looking to make a comeback is both sad and scary; his wife is not the most welcoming of shop-keepers; and a local cleric may be up to no good. At core this is a mystery. Who killed the floater and why? And why was Bear living in a teepee on rented land? Why had he abandoned his family years earlier? Sam is certain that Bear is innocent and sets out to prove it. Even Ollie take some dodgy risks trying to find out the truths at play here, but this is no children‘s story.

Every novel incorporates a palette, colors, furnishings, places and/or images that help illuminate elements of the characters, set a mood, pull us through the story with externals that cast light on themes and the characters themselves. In Crooked River, trees are a part of the landscape, serving both to remind us that the setting is rural, and marking some significant locations as well. Bees figure large here. Bear is a bee-keeper. We get to see him as a good daddy taking care of the bees and training Sam to do the same. A bit of bee mythology is noted that might inform events. One bee leads to a clue. A hive comes into play.

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians thought bees were messengers sent from the sun god Ra? The Greeks, though, now they believed bees were souls of the dead come back to keep the rest of us company.

When Ollie sees ghosts they appear in a sparkly aspect. This fireworks-like image appears not only with ghosts but in some other places as well.

As far back as I can remember I’ve seen them. In dim light, they seem almost solid. In bright light, barely visible. If I touch them, it’s ice and fire, energy burning. They are glints and specks, here and then gone. Shimmering. Like heat rising off pavement.

Sam is both an engaging sort and bloody infuriating for all the planning-challenged adolescent choices she makes. You may find yourself shrieking “Schmuck” at the character as I did, but hey, teenager. They are expected to make some bad choices. I was not entirely persuaded about Bear’s decision to live where and how he did and thought some of his decisions were a bit adolescent as well, however well-intentioned. So there is a bit of credibility straining going on. But if you are willing to accept a young girl seeing ghosts, I suppose you give up the right to grouse about less obvious stretches.

Despite the above, Crooked River is not only a fine example of a classical literary approach, it is a serious page-turner. Sam is a good kid, a character we can admire as well as chastise. You will care about her, and her much-beset younger sib, and will keep turning those pages to see where Crooked River will take them, and you, next. There are plenty of bends here and the water is choppy. But it is a journey well worth taking. Straight business.

Review posted – 6/27/14

Publication date – 10/14/14

This review has also been posted on Goodreads

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

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

An article on writing Geary wrote for Writer’s Digest, 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far


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The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

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What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.

Stephen Galloway, the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, takes on a legendary real-life character and tries to make some magic with his lesser known history.

He tells a tale of Houdini, vaudevillian superstar, greatest magician of his time, escape artist extraordinaire and, maybe, an international spy.

Martin Strauss is none of these things. When we meet him, in the present day of the tale, he has just gotten some bad news:

”Yours is a rare condition,” [the doctor] said, seeming almost excited, “in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.”

Strauss is Galloway’s external, invented character, there to help frame the narrative. So, Harry Houdini meets Memento?

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the author

Strauss, a student in Montreal, is fascinated with magic, although he is not a capable practitioner. He is smitten with a young lady who shares his interest, and when they have a chance to see the great Harry Houdini perform, they avail. Strauss is not the most secure beau and when the object of his desire seems more interested in the famed escape artist than is comfortable, things get heated.

On October 31, 1926, the real-life Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. A few days earlier, in Montreal, a student named Whitehead was granted permission to punch Houdini in the stomach, a test of the performer’s claim that it would not hurt him. Under normal circumstances it might not have, but it turned out that Houdini was compromised with a case of appendicitis. He kept traveling and performing, but was brought to a hospital in Detroit, in severe pain, and died there. Ascribing his death to the student’s blows was really a ploy to get his life insurance to pay double.

“Houdini’s death has always really interested me. What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?” from the Globe and Mail interview

There are alternating tale-tellers in The Confabulist. Martin Strauss speaks for himself, and the Houdini chapters are told by an omniscient narrator. The time lines are dual as well, present day alternating with a past that advances from 1897, before Houdini had achieved world-wide renown, to 1927, as Martin recalls and we see for ourselves what transpired. We cover some real estate in The Confabulist, as well, from Canada to New York to sundry locales in Europe.

Houdini – image from wikimedia

We get to see how the gifted Erik Weisz, a Budapest-born son of a rabbi, became the amazing Houdini, professionally and theatrically. There are explanations for a few of the stage tricks of the age, and that is a particular bit of fun. There is some insight into how the entertainment business of the early 20th century was run, and a look at the latter day Houdini as an exposer of charlatan psychics and spiritualists.

When asked how he landed on Houdini for his new novel, Galloway says he was fascinated by the showman’s iconic status, but also by the fact that Houdini himself was a sort of fiction. “Most magicians are kind of made-up characters, but him more than any. He’s a Hungarian Jew pretending to be Mr. America. Most of what he said about himself biographically was a total, total lie. So I just kind of arrived there and never left.” – from the Globe and Mail interview

Strauss’s history is far less interesting, but in his musings we get at some of the thematic issues of the novel. Some insight into international intelligence goings on of the period is also noteworthy.

What is real and what an illusion is a consistent theme throughout the tale, on stage and off

How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have? In a magic trick, the things you don’t see or think you see have a culmination, because at the end of the trick there’s an effect. Misdirection tampers with reconstruction. But if life works the same way, and I believe it does, then a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined


a memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress

So does Galloway succeed in making magic? Only somewhat. There are two issues I had with the book. One is the inherent difficulty of having an unreliable narrator. That this is done openly from the opening chapter does not make it any less problematic. How are we to know if what Strauss reports is true or imagined? And if one cannot know if what he reports is real, it makes for difficulty in relating to his experience, and knowing for ourselves that what we are reading is or is not an accurate rendering of events. The dimorphism between the wonderful tale of Houdini’s and the far less gripping tale of Martin Strauss makes one want to slip the knots of Martin’s chapters to make one’s way back to the real action. And, while the story of Houdini does succeed in holding our interest, it seemed to me that there remained a distance between reader and character, even for Houdini, that kept one from the sort of emotional engagement that is needed if we are to feel much for him. Martin is an obvious literary device, so one does not hope for too much there. But one does want to feel more of an investment in Houdini than was possible here.

There are compelling elements at play in The Confabulist. The contemplation of reality versus illusion counts as a strength. On the other hand, the rationale for Strauss’s attack on Houdini seemed forced. One would expect that there is a marvelous story encased in the available elements. Unfortunately, the tale is only able to extract a limb or two and remains locked up. While there is no obvious tell in the author’s literary sleight of hand, there is certainly enough going on to sustain a reader’s interest, this remains an instance when the magic simply does not quite go poof.

Review posted – 6/20/14

It was first posted on Fantasy Book Critic

Publication date – May 6, 2014

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

The condition ascribed to Martin Strauss was discovered by one Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist, who is represented in The Confabulist by a Russian Dr. Korsakoff practicing in the West, presumably New York. Here is some info on the actual condition.

A bit of info on Harry Houdini

Interviews with the author – from The Globe and Mail and The National Post

Houdini’s grave

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Rooms by Lauren Oliver

book cover

We’ve nested in the walls like bacteria. We’ve taken over the house, its insulation and its plumbing–we’ve made it our own. Or maybe it’s life that is the infection: a feverish dream, a hallucination of feelings. Death is purification, a cleansing, a cure.

If death ever takes a holiday I expect he might vacation in Coral River, the upstate New York locale where Richard Walker lives…well…lived. Richard’s recent passing is what has brought the Walker family back together for a spell. A funeral, a burial, a will-reading, and a chance to go over some of the events, the challenges, the hopes and disappointments, the failings of their lives.

Ex-wife Caroline tries to lubricate the process with a steady ingestion of alcohol. Their children are not faring much better. Twenty-something single-mother Minna has a taste for spirits as well. Failure and desperation to fill the emptiness inside will do that. Even the introduction of cosmetic surgery and various prescription meds seem unable to fill that void. Trenton is Richard and Caroline’s teenage son, and he has issues. He barely survived a car crash that left him feeling even more of an outsider than he already was. Trenton sees things that the rest of us cannot, actual holes in the fabric of reality. He wonders if he might be better off dead. Of course some of the household residents already are.

Sandra, whose gray matter once decorated a wall, and Alice, an abused wife who has also contributed to the body count of the house, have made the place their own, or is it the other way round? These golden girls are not necessarily precious. In addition to remembering their lives and observing the Walkers, they squabble and tell lies. And while they may not be able to exactly tote luggage or dig ditches, it is possible for them to effect small acts in the living world, pushing this, bursting that. Having some unresolved issues keeps them from being able to open a doorway to a less geographically restricted existence. Reports of missing children also figure in, from decades past and right now. There are plenty of secrets to be delved into here. Such as just how did Sandra and Alice die? What happened to the missing girls? Who is that new girl ghost who just showed up? And who is Minna banging now?

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Topper and transparent pals

This is not a scary ghost story sort of tale. No spectres coming to take over anyone’s body. More Topper than The Evil Dead, although not a comedy. A bit of spookery goes on, but there are two elements here that seem dominant, mystery and sadness. In a way, I was reminded of Agatha Christie, as Oliver presents readers with a sequence of mysteries to be solved, offering clues here

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Bruce Campbell in his best-known role

and there, hints, red herrings, the usual tools of that trade. While the ghosts may not be scary, their stories and the stories of the living as well are intensely haunting. Choices, mistakes, regrets, the impact of the past echoes in the present, for both the dead and the living.

Oliver organizes her story into eleven parts, representing diverse rooms in the house. The tales told connect with each room in turn. Rooms features an ensemble cast. Oliver’s characters are well-drawn and very human. It is hard not to sympathize with Alice or relate to Trenton. And it is possible to understand why some of the others behave the way they do, given what we learn of their histories.

There is a lot here about identity, being oneself or wanting to be someone, or something else, to have some other life, and coping with other people’s masks.

It was unfair that people could pretend to be one thing when they were really something else. That they would get you on their side and then do nothing but fail, and fail, and fail again. People should come with warnings, like cigarette packs: involvement would kill you over time.

There is also a lot about being trapped whether as a child in a abusive household, a woman in an abusive marriage, a teen in what seems a dead-end existence, or a ghost in an empty house. There are some moments of humor, although none of the LOL variety, but dollops of charm do seep through the walls from time to time.

In short, Rooms is a fun, engaging and fast read. There is real content in the very believable characters’ attempts to make sense of their lives. While this spirited entry into the adult novel category is not the sort of ghost tale that will cause anyone to leave on the lights at night, there is considerable material here that is indeed quite haunting.

Review posted – 6/13/14

Publication date – 9/23/2014

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

Lauren Oliver, is the pen name adopted by Laura Schechter, a young 30-something author who has already seen considerable success with her youth-oriented novels, most notably the YA Delirium trilogy. Her latest YA novel, Panic, was released in March, 2014. Rooms is her first novel for adults. Oliver’s parents are both literature professors. Dad is Harold Schechter, who has written many books on true-crime and American popular culture. Oliver lives in Brooklyn.

Here are links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages, and to her blog and Tumblr pages as well.

If that is not enough you can also check her out on YouTube

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The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

book coverIn 1793, ten-year-old Tabitha is smitten with the idea of the sea. Her father, John, an erstwhile pirate and soldier in the Continental Army, owns a shop in Beaufort, NC. Tab’s affection for the maritime may have to do with her mother, Helen. John and Helen had eloped, over her father’s objections, and sailed together under a black flag. But her father’s tales are all Tab has of her mother, who died giving birth to her. When she contracts yellow fever John is desperate to find a way to help his daughter.

…to save her from the graveyard he must take her to the sea. He took her mother once, and being on the water only made her bloom.

They board a ship bound for Bermuda. This does not sit well with her grandfather, who believes her chances are best ashore, and well prayed over. Asa owns a plantation, producing turpentine from considerable stands of pines. A religious sort, he is hell-bent on making sure that his legacy is carried forward. When his wife died in childbirth, he focused that need on his daughter. But his attempts to root her to his land failed when she fell in love with John, a man of not much family, but an excellent heart.

The story is told in three parts, beginning with Tabitha’s struggle. Part two goes back to Asa raising Helen, giving her a slave, Moll, for her birthday, and the complicated relationship between Moll and Helen. While the comparison falls very short, both Moll and Helen are chained to their roles in life. Both resent their restrictions. But only Helen can actually act on her desires without being scourged for it. Asa is chained to his land and his attitudes, unable to see past what is to what might be, and unwilling to see beyond self-serving adages to what is right, to ever loosen himself from his own bindings.

Part three returns to John and Asa, Moll, and her son, Davy. It goes into how each of the primary characters ultimately copes or tries to cope, with the challenges of their lives, their losses, and chances.

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Katy Simpson Smith

Katy Simpson Smith has more than enough background for undertaking a look at America in the late 18th century. Before she returned to school to get her MFA, she completed a doctorate in history, and has published an examination of motherhood, We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, which covers the period on display in her novel. It was a hard knock life for women in late 18th century America. Not only was the risk from childbirth far greater than it is today, even past that life-threatening event women were treated as chattel. Not to the same extent as actual slaves, but to a significant degree.

He [Asa] had a possessiveness in him that encompassed his house, his land, his women

And he would use marriage as a way to shackle both his daughter and her slave to his land. And what of the reverberations of the lot of females to those around them? Increased peril for their children, for one. Strained existence for their survivors, both emotionally and materially. And various forms of torment as the storms that rise from imprisonment bring forth dark gales. Parents are taken from children and children are taken from parents by the foolishness of custom, the limitations of ignorance and the blind eye of fate.

Thematically there is a lot going on here. Property views figure large. Asa considers Helen a form of property and takes as little heed of her wishes as he does of those of her slave, Moll. Marriage and choice come in for some consideration. Within that larger theme, both Moll and Helen confront the conflict between who their respective owners want them to marry and what they want for themselves.

“I wouldn’t mind if I had some say in who I laid down with.” [says Helen’s slave, Moll]
Helen nods. She puts her chin in her hands, nodding. People want what isn’t given to them. And this is not sin, but hope.
What if God didn’t put us here to accept, but to struggle? Isn’t love itself built on that precise impossible hope?

It is also clear that love is not always allowed to be the greatest consideration in choosing a mate, or to define one’s relationship with a mate after the marriage is made.

“Do you miss your husband, Mrs Randolph?” He had died looking for free land in the frontier, shot through with a Cherokee arrow. His partner had buried him in the west and sent Mrs. Randolph his musket and his spectacles. The gun she keeps hung behind her cabin door, where all the little Randolphs know to find it.
“I mostly miss the money he brought in, to speak frankly. He was a good father to the little ones and did well by us, but there’s something rather nice about one’s own life. Making decisions without someone to tell you ‘no, best not do that.’ He never thought I could do much for myself.”
“We’re lucky to have you,” Helen says.
“There’s no telling what all I can do without him, miss.

There is a tautness to this relatively brief novel. The concept of Checkov’s gun is well implemented. A beaten slave in one scene is employed relevantly in another. A notion of escape by boat is recommended and no sooner done than an actual boat appears. Sometimes this seemed a bit too neat. As is the bludgeoning irony of Asa freeing a panicked bird that is trapped in his house, while denying freedom to enslaved humans.

On the first page of the novel, John interrupts Tabitha’s request for more information about her mother.

He looks down the hall at the shadows whipping across the slats and holds a finger to his lips. “Can you hear any birds?”

This certainly gives one the notion that birds might be related to souls of the dead, or shadows. Could be something else entirely of course. Birds might be functioning as a sort of Greek chorus. In any case, you might want to keep this in mind as you come across the many bird references throughout the book. Land references abound as well, as wood is noted many a time, particularly pine, and flowers.

The writing in The Story of Land and Sea is beautiful, moving, and insightful. The story begins:

On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm. He always tells of their courting days, of her mother’s shyness. She looked like a straight tall pine from a distance, only when he got close could he see her trembling.
“Was she scared?”
“Happy,” John says. “We were both happy.”

There is plenty more where that came from.

The Story of Land and Sea is set to launch on August 26, 2104. This is one boat you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – June 6, 2014

Publication dates – 8/26/14 – paperback, e-book, kindle, Audio CD

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

The book opens with an abridged version of an Isaac Watts hymn about the joys of heaven offering one a reason not to fear death. It seems an odd intro, given that the focus in the tale is, to a large degree, about the impact of death on those left behind (no, not in the Tim LeHaye way) with no assurance of a heavenly reward waiting. Perhaps it was intended ironically. In any case, the hymn is beautifully set to music by Red Mountain Music here.

From – The Historical Horror of Childbirth

The author’s site is now up

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