Monthly Archives: September 2022

Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen

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

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

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

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Sarah Addison Allen – from her FB pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – September 30, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy

My Dirty California by Jason Mosberg

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I love this state, I really do. Yet, at times, California feels like something hip someone in marketing tried to fit in a bottle to sell. California is the kind of place that can make a person who doesn’t care about flowers care about wildflowers. But there’s a dark history below California’s undeniably beautiful surface. A dark history with how its destiny manifested. Japanese internment. The LA riots. The California Alien Land Law of 1913. The Mexican-American War. Facebook. Sometimes I think California never left the gold rush era. Gold was merely substituted with other treasure to chase. Movies. Fame. Waves. Venture capital. Youth. Wine. Love. Spirituality. Technology. I guess I’m part of the everlasting, ever-changing rush.

When I first moved to LA, I realized no one here goes bowling. There’s too much to do. Marty Morrel did it all. He explored every inch of the city of LA, every crack and crevice of the state of California, and it’s all documented in hundreds of videos, thousands of pictures, and scores of essays and journal entries. Even if there hadn’t been any crimes, I think I would have wanted to make a podcast about Marty. But there were crimes. I thought murders would be the most disturbing part of this podcast, but that was before I learned about Pandora’s House. – from a fictional, unaired podcast

As you can see, My Dirty California opens with a fun, noir narration. The sensibility persists, although there is no troubled detective or PI asking uncomfortable questions, drinking too much, and getting beaten up. After that opening bit, Mosberg leaves the boundless beauty (the clean aspect?) of the state to other writers. This is today’s off-the-tourist-map California, violence, murder, drugs, trafficking, scams, surfer dudes, documentary film-making, outrageous, long-lasting parties, portraits of some Cali subcultures, a bit of mental illness, sleuthing, sex (only a little) and some serious other-worldly notions. There are LOLs to be had here, and even some tears. Jody, Pen, Tish and Renata are all searching for something, and Marty Morrel is at the center of it all.

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Jason Mosberg – from his site

Unfortunately for Marty he is not around, as he becomes late early on. After a ten-year hiatus he returned to his home near Lancaster, PA, where his father and brother, Jody, live. Soon after, a hooded gunman killed him, for reasons unknown, and his father, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But before his demise, he had clued Jody in to a project he had been working on

“I’ve been making this thing. I don’t really know what it is yet. It’s called My Dirty California.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a website. But it’s really just a place I’ve been doing a . . . project. I didn’t even know what it was at first. I wasn’t trying to define it. Eventually it kinda became a video log, about my adventures or whatever. A place to store all the pictures I take. And I kept up with it. Posting these videos online.”
“So it’s a blog.”
“No,” Marty says…“It’s more a place I can store all these photos and videos and essays till I figure out what to do with the project. Maybe at some point I’ll edit them into a documentary or a piece of long-form web video art.”

When Jody decides to heads out to LA to find out what Marty was up to, what got him killed, that collection is his starting point, along with letters and postcards his brother had sent home. Jody is not the only person availing of Marty’s trove.

Penelope Rhodes is a documentary film maker. She’d had some success with an earlier film about a UFO, which gets her several meetings about her new project. The driving force of her life is finding her father, who vanished when she was a kid. However, this is a search with a difference. Pen has a rather peculiar idea of what may have happened to him, involving Matrix-like simulations. Don’t ask. She is fixated on finding a particular place, Pandora’s House, where she believes it might be possible to move from this simulation (the one we are all living in) to another, where her father might be. This obsession has made getting by in this simulation rather a challenge. In her explorations, she comes across Marty’s vast materials, and follows the clues wherever they lead, or wherever she imagines they might lead.

Typhony Carter is young, married, with one son. She works cleaning houses, but cannot get enough work to keep her family afloat. Her husband, Mike, is a dedicated father. But when they go to a rally about cops killing yet another black teen, Mike gets into it with a counter-protester and winds up in jail. Times get even tougher, so when a scheme appears, that involves finding a hoard of art, supposedly secreted away by a recently deceased collector/dealer, she takes on the mission.

Renata, 19, travels from Mexico to the USA hoping for a better life, not, of course, through the legal channels. There is a contact in LA who can help her, a family friend. But things do not go to plan and Renata winds up trying to survive an abduction. Marty had been trying to find out what happened to her. Now there are others looking as well.

The POV alternates among Jody, Pen, Renata, and Typh. Jody is our driving force, where we spend the most time. There are 89 chapters in the book. Jody gets 31, then Pen, 24, Renata, 18, and Typh, 16. The chapters are short, so the four stories move along at a lively clip, clearly a product of a screenwriter’s appreciation of pacing

It also makes it possible to read this whenever you have small bits of available time, if that is something you like to do.

Since this is California, wheeled transportation figures large. Almost all the characters are assigned an auto-trait, like hair or eye color, or age. Jody, for example, drives a gray pickup. Pen drives a Prius. People are tracked, as well as defined, by the cars they drive. There is an Acura, an Accord, an old Lexus sedan, a Ford Focus, even a Tesla, and plenty more. I only started keeping track part way through. It is a small, fun element. There are appealing. surprising cameos by a range of wild creatures. These include a kangaroo, a wobbegong shark, and a jaguar. The notion of moving from one reality to another is given a look beyond Pen’s particular take on it.

Mosberg offers sly commentary on local sub-cultures. He looks a bit at how good intentions are used for dark ends. One thing to be aware of, different characters are on unparallell timelines, although those timelines do intersect. Characters in adjoining chapters could be doing what they do months apart. I found it a wee bit disconcerting at first, as actual dates are not provided, but one soon gets used to it.

Character engagementJody is righteous, on an understandable truth-seeking quest. His motivation makes sense and he is easy to pull for. Pen is also on a quest, although it remains to be seen for us whether there is enough reality basis there for us to go all in with her. Wanting to find your lost father may be a noble ambition, but she may just be nuts. Pandora’s House may be just another conspiracy theory (she nurtures loads of those) Makes it a bit tougher to go all in for her emotionally. Renata is an innocent soul, a pure victim, beset by dark forces, just wanting a better life. But is there enough more about her in here to make us care beyond wanting her to escape? Typh is a decent sort, although, in order to provide for her family, she is willing to go legally and morally rogue. So, depending on what works for ya, you may find one or more of these four worthy of following. I enjoyed the weaving together of the strands, as they all continue to connect through Marty’s storehouse of intel.

There is a considerable cast of supporting actors. Two thuggish sorts were a particular delight, a source of considerable merriment. There are occasional bits in which this character or that is presented in a bit more depth, but that is not what this book is about. It is about the story, and, of course, the state.

Bottom line for me was that I really loved this book. It kept me interested, offered enough characters to care about, gave a peek into places and groups I have never experienced, in short it kept me entertained for the duration. You may or may not ever find your way to Pandora’s House, but you should have no trouble finding your way to a copy of My Dirty California.

“Various rumors exist about Pandora’s House. Some people say the architect Zaha Hadid was paid eight figures to design a top secret underground property in Southern California but she had to sign an NDA, and no one knows where it is. Another rumor suggests the Church of Scientology began building a two-hundred-million-dollar bunker but abandoned the project halfway through and sold the property to a couple millennials whose parents had made billions in the dot-com era, and they use the house to throw elaborate weeklong parties. Some say it’s where the notorious lizard people live underground. Other people say the house was constructed by the US government as a safe house for the top one percent in the case of an apocalyptic event.”
“Has anyone actually seen the house?” asks Matt.
“Lots of people claim to have. It’s difficult to know for sure.

Review posted – September 23, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

I received an DRC (digital review copy) of My Dirty California from Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review, and surrendering certain tapes that had come into my possession. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Mosberg’s personal and Twitter pages

Profile
Jason Mosberg works as a screenwriter and TV creator in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the CBS All Access series One Dollar

Item of Interest from the author
—–Crime reads – Don’t Turn My Book Into a TV Serieson the fixation in Hollywood these days on Intellectual Property, or IP.

I first wrote My Dirty California as a pilot script and I gave it to a producer I knew—let’s call him Bob—a couple years ago. And at the time, Bob said he read the script and it wasn’t for him. A few days after the announcement of the sale of the book My Dirty California to Simon & Schuster, Bob called and said, “I heard you sold a book, what’s it about?” He was interested. And he had no recollection of the script I sent him because he probably didn’t bother to read it. That was just a script. But this? This is a book. This is IP.

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Filed under California, Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

The Very Secret Society Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

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…witches were always orphans. According to Primrose, this was because of a spell that went wrong in some bygone era. Mika was certain this tale was a figment of Primrose’s imagination, but she also had no better explanation because the fact remained: when a witch was born, she would find herself orphaned shortly thereafter. It didn’t matter where in the world the witch was born, and the cause of death could be anything from innocuous illnesses to everyday accidents, but it was inevitable.

WITCH WANTED. Live-in tutor wanted for three young witches. Must have nerves of steel. Previous teaching experience not necessary. Witchiness essential.

We have all answered want ads, but I expect there are few (you know who you are) who have come across one like that. But Mika Moon has been looking for an opportunity. There are not many witches in England and they have lived very separate lives in Mandanna’s witchy world. Apparently when they get together, their magic, which manifests as something like those specks you see in the air when bright light shines in an enclosed space, but gold, visible only to those with witch blood, combine and draw attention. (maybe they are scraped from yellow bricks? ) Also, as noted at top, they are all orphans. There are quarterly meetings of England’s witch population, well, a portion of them anyway, but they are living very separate lives. (People come and go so quickly here.) Their cover story, of course, is that they are a book club.

Mika was unusual in the group, being the child of a witch, and the granddaughter of a witch. It appears that most witches in this world were born to parents the Potter-verse might refer to as Muggles. When she was orphaned in India, Primrose Beatrice Everly, maybe the oldest living witch, found her and brought her to England, where she was raised in Primrose’s home. Not the worst life, but a lonely one.

Sometimes, when she looked back on her childhood, Mika had trouble remembering all her nannies and tutors. There had been so very many of them that she would sometimes catch herself forgetting names or struggling to conjure up a face or attaching a memory to the wrong person.


What she did remember, in perfect, crystalline detail, was the loneliness. She remembered how much she’d longed for company. A parent, a sister, a friend. Someone who was there because they wanted to be and not because they were paid handsomely to be.

Mika amuses herself by posting videos on line of her pretending to be a witch, expecting that no one would believe she really is one. But someone does see, thus the Help Wanted ad finding its way to her. And the game is afoot, or maybe a-broom.

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Sangu Mandanna – image from her site

In a way, Mika’s experience is a bit like Dorothy’s when she first set foot in Oz. Where Am I? What is this place? Although she doesn’t, she could easily, on her arrival, have said, “Circe, [that being her dog] I don’t think we’re in Brighton any more.” There are three young witch girls living there. How is that even possible? Their combined magic is manifest, and a sure sign of imminent peril!

“Too much magic in one place attracts attention,” [Primrose] would say. “Even wards can only hide so much. And attracting attention, as witches have discovered time and time again over the centuries, is dangerous. Alone is how we survive.”

She meets with the four grownups of Nowhere House (yes, really) first. They are very welcoming, well, except for one, who is as crusty as he is handsome. The lady of the house, (Lillian Nowhere, and thus the name of the house. Yes, really. ) absent at present, had adopted the girls from different parts of the world. While it is clear that this is a loving household, it is also clear that someone needs to train the girls in how to manage their unusual gift. In the role of Wicked Witch, there is an accountant, engaged by the absent Lillian, set to arrive in six weeks, and he holds enormous power over them, the girls in particular. If their magic is not locked down it could result in the dissolution of the household. So, no pressure.

One thing Mika brings with her is a true heart and an eagerness to help, and a cheerfulness that runs into some barriers. There is no wondering for us if Mika a good witch or a bad witch as she teaches the girls not only how to better manage their power, gaining some trust and affection. But not all members of the household are convinced. One of the girls is overtly unhappy that Mika is there and does her best to be unpleasant to her, and unengaged.

As for Mika in particular, honestly, I think she represented a ray of sunshine and hope that I needed when I started writing this novel in lockdown. – from the United by Pop interview

Then there is Jamie, the crusty, protective librarian who had the most responsibility for the girls. If you have ever seen a Hallmark movie, you can see what’s coming the instant these two cross paths. I am not saying that I mind this. I have been dragged to the living room to watch (more than) my share of Hallmark movies (Could you loosen those ropes a bit, dear? ) so I speak from a reasonable amount of experience. I will confess that I actually like some of these things, however formulaic. And the romance here is indeed formulaic, albeit charmingly done and with some nice magical elements.

I’ve loved stories with fantasy and magic since I was a little girl, and I was an eager tween when I first discovered my love of romance novels. I think it was inevitable that I would write a book that combined fantasy with romance, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve also discovered a love of stories about found families, outcasts finding a place to belong, and the magic of the everyday. I wanted to write a book with all of these things. – from the United by Pop interview

Thankfully, there are other things going on. In her interview with Verve, Mandanna recalls being in love with the play, Les Miserables as a teen, and acting out all the parts herself, believing that there would never be a chance for someone with brown skin to play any of those roles. Even her favorite characters from classic literature seemed out of reach, and rom-coms and other forms all seemed to feature females of only one sort. So, when she started writing it was with an eye toward including people who looked like her. Thus, Mika was born in India. And the girls are diverse. One is black, one is from Vietnam and another is Palestinian. (I am sure that it is purely a coincidence that there are three children in the novel and Mandanna has three of her own. )

Mika struggles with her need for a family, for acceptance of what she is, for love. She has been raised to believe that attachment is lethal, as once non-witch people in her life learn of her powers, only trouble follows. So, don’t get attached, don’t settle in, keep moving, and stay away from other witches. It makes for a very lonely life. But with that mindset, how can you accept what appears to be a real connection to a loving family if they could yank it away at any time? This applies both to the family and her relationship with Jamie. But she feels herself falling in love with this family. Isolation sucks.

Mandanna wrote this during the COVID lockdowns, so Mika has taken on the additional task of standing in for so many of us who struggled with disconnection, who were unable to have physical contact with family and other people for a long time.

Gripes are modest. Yes, it is a romance, but I found it a bit jarring for a book that was going along reading very much like a YA title to then get a fair bit steamy a time or two. Not surprising that someone who has made her mark writing for a younger audience (The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is her first novel for adults) might retain a lot of that sensibility while adding more adult elements. (There is the odd profanity as well) But it felt unnecessary. What we gain from those scenes could have been accomplished with much less detail. I wanted to know so much more about Primrose, and how she located her special orphans. Ditto for Lillian. And maybe how witches who are constantly moving from place to place manage to make a living. While the setup makes sense to establish Mika’s situation and that of the residents of that special place, it does not seem likely to stand up well to much expansion.

I really liked the notion of making magic not only visually manifest, but with its own personality. There is some LOL material here as well. It is not a long book. The story rolls along quickly. It is engaging, as Mika is an appealing lead and her situation is tailor-made to pluck your heartstrings. It is a fast, enjoyable read, perfect for when you might be looking for something to cheer you up. You will be charmed. While reading The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches I expect there will be Nowhere you would rather be.

She hadn’t understood how exhausting and heartbreaking it had been to hide such a big part of herself all these years, to reshape and contort herself into something more acceptable. She hadn’t realised just how heavy her mask had been until she’d discovered what it was to live without it.

Review posted – September 16, 2022

Publication date – August 23, 2022

I received an ARE of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches from Berkley in return for a fair review, and a few obscure ingredients for a potion. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from her site

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids.

Interviews
—–She Reads – August Guest Editor Sangu Mandanna on The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
—–Verve – A GIRL LIKE ME: SANGU MANDANNA – from 2019 – so not specific for this book, but interesting intel about the author
—–The Fantasy Hive – INTERVIEW WITH SANGU MANDANNA (THE VERY SECRET SOCIETY OF IRREGULAR WITCHES) by Niles Shukla
—–United by Pop – Sangu Mandanna On Her Bewitching New Rom-Com, The Very Secret Society Of Irregular Witches by Kate Oldfield
—–Writers Digest – Sangu Mandanna: On Writing Her First Novel for Adults by Robert Lee Brewer

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

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The dead don’t walk. Except, sometimes, when they do.

It is a cliché to say that a building’s windows look like eyes because humans will find faces in anything and of course the windows would be the eyes. The house of Usher had dozens of eyes, so either it was a great many faces lined up together or it was the face of some creature belonging to a different order of life—a spider, perhaps, with rows of eyes along its head.

How many of you have not read Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher? Ok, now how many of you read it, but so long ago that you do not really remember what it was all about? All right, the link is right above, so, really, go check it out. Take your time. I get paid the same whether you take half an hour or a year, so no worries on my part. Pop back in when you’re done.

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All right, I think it has been long enough. Those who have not done the reading can catch up later. As I am sure you get, What Moves the Dead is a pastiche, a reimagining of Poe’s tale. Often these are temporal updates, moving the events to a more contemporary setting. But this one is different. Kingfisher (really Ursula Vernon) keeps Usher in the late 19th century. She supplants Poe’s thick style with a more contemporary, less florid, more conversational presentation.

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T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page

Poe’s unnamed narrator becomes Alex Easton, of which more in a bit. We first meet the lieutenant examining some disturbing flora.

The mushroom’s gills were the deep-red color of severed muscle, the almost-violet shade that contrasts so dreadfully with the pale pink of viscera. I had seen it any number of times in dead deer and dying soldiers, but it startled me to see it here.

Ok, definitely not good. Continuing on, Alex is alarmed at the state of the Usher manse.

It was a joyless scene, even with the end of the journey in sight. There were more of the pale sedges and a few dead trees, too gray and decayed for me to identify…Mosses coated the edges of the stones and more of the stinking redgills pushed up in obscene little lumps. The house squatted over it all like the largest mushroom of them all.

The invitation (plea) to visit in this version came not from Roderick Usher, but from his twin, Madeline. Neither sibling had had any children, so mark the end of their line, as many prior generations had failed to provide more than a single direct line of descendants. Both Madeline and Roderick look awful, cadaverous, with Maddy, diagnosed as cataleptic, quite wasted away and clearly nearing death. They are having a bad hair life.

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Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative

There is another in attendance, Doctor James Denton, an American, whose primary narrative purpose seems to be to provide a conversational and analytical partner for Easton.

We track the demise of Madeline. Given her Poe-DNA, we know her chances for survival are not great. (But was she really dead in that one, or just entombed alive?) Add in a delight of an amateur mycologist, Eugenia, a fictional aunt of Beatrix Potter, who was quite an accomplished student and illustrator of things fungal. Potter is a pure delight upon the page, (maybe she used some spells?) possessed of a sharp mind and wit, and a bit of unkind regard for some. Other supporting cast include Easton’s batman (no, not that one) Angus, and his mount, Hob, who is given a lot more personality than horses are usually allowed.

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Image from from TV Tropes

So, plenty of dark and dreary, but the atmospherics are not all that is going on here. Kingfisher had read the book as a kid, but rereading it as an adult, found her curiosity piqued. She noted that Poe goes on a fair bit in his story about things fungal, so decided to dig into that as a possible reason for the sad state of the Usher land and clan. The result is a spore-burst of understanding,

…so I was reading old pulp, basically going, is there anything here that grabs me that I can see a story in. And I happened on Usher and I was like, I haven’t reread any Poe in a while. And I read Fall of the House of Usher and it’s obsessed with rotting vegetation and fungus. And it’s really short. And they don’t explain hardly anything…I wanted to know what was wrong with Madeline Usher because you get buried alive, that is a problem. And so I started reading about catalepsy which is what it was diagnosed as at the time and also fungus, there was just so much about fungus and I’m like, okay, obviously these two must be linked somehow.; – from the LitHub interview

There is a particularly creepy element, in the hares around the tarn that sit and stare at people through blank eyes. They do not behave like normal bunnies at all in other unsettling ways I will not spoil here.

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Image from Television Heaven

It is definitely worth your time to re-read Poe’s original. There are so many wonderful elements. One is a song that Roderick composes, which encapsulates the dark sense of the tale. There are some bits that were changed or omitted from the original. Poe’s Roderick was heavy into painting, an element that Kingfisher opted to omit. And he was particularly taken with Henry Fuseli, whose dark painting, The Nightmare, certainly fits well with the tale. His guitar work in the original was replaced with piano playing.

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia

Kingfisher adds into the story a bit of gender irregularity. What to do if a non-binary person with mammaries wants to become a soldier? Well, these days, can do, but in the late 19th century, not so much. She learned of a practice in the Caucusus, borne of a shortfall of human cannon fodder. A woman could join the military by declaring herself a man, and voila, presto chango, she is legally a dude. Kingfisher took a tangent off that, giving Easton a home in a made-up European nation.

Gallacia’s language is . . . idiosyncratic. Most languages you encounter in Europe have words like he and she and his and hers. Ours has those, too, although we use ta and tha and tan and than. But we also have va and var, ka and kan, and a few others specifically for rocks and God… And then there’s ka and kan. I mentioned that we were a fierce warrior people, right? Even though we were bad at it? But we were proud of our warriors. Someone had to be, I guess, and this recognition extends to the linguistic fact that when you’re a warrior, you get to use ka and kan instead of ta and tan. You show up to basic training and they hand you a sword and a new set of pronouns. (It’s extremely rude to address a soldier as ta. It won’t get you labeled as a pervert, but it might get you punched in the mouth.)

This did not seem particularly necessary to the story, but it is certainly an interesting element.

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Image from Filo News

So, while you know the outcome in the original, (because you went back and read the story, right?) there is a question of causation. Why is the land so dreary? Why are the Ushers so ill? Why was the family tree more like a telephone pole? Kingfisher provides a delightful answer.

So, What Moves the Dead, in novella length, (about 45K words) provides an intriguing mystery, renders a suitably grim setting, offers up some fun characters, with an interesting take on gender identification possibilities, delivers some serious, scary moments, and pays homage to a classic horror tale, while (didn’t I mention this above?) making us laugh out loud. I had in my notes FIVE LOLs. Add in a bunch of snickers and a passel of smiles. Not something one might expect in a horror tale. Bottom line is that T. Kingfisher has written a scary/funny/smart re-examination (exhumation?) of a fabulous tale. What Moves the Dead moves me to report that this book is perfect for the Halloween season, and a great read anytime if you are looking for a bit of a short, but not short-story short, creepy scare.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. – from The Fall of the House of Usher

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From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix

Review posted – September 9, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

I received an eARE of What Moves the Dead from Tor Nightfire in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Wait, why are you staring at me like that? Stop it! Really, Stop it!

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from GoodReads

T. Kingfisher is the vaguely absurd pen-name of Ursula Vernon. In another life, she writes children’s books and weird comics, and has won the Hugo, Sequoyah, and Ursa Major awards, as well as a half-dozen Junior Library Guild selections

Interview
—–Mighty Mu – Spoilers Club 3: T Kingfisher and What Moves the Dead – video – 41:08

Item of Interest from the author
—–Sarah Gailey and T. Kingfisher Talk Haunted Houses, Fantastic Fungi, and the Stories Nonbinary Folks Deserve

Songs/Music
—–Carl Maria von Weber’s Last Waltz is referenced in Poe’s story, in which Roderick played guitar instead of piano
—–John Brown’s Body – Smile-worthy reference to a dead person who still walks among us
—–Ben Morton – Beethoven’s Fifth on piano – …he played dramatic compositions by great composers. (Mozart? Beethoven? Why are you asking me? It was music, it went dun-dun-dun-DUN, what more do you want me to say?)

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Novella

Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivener

book cover

For every girl child, there seemed to lurk a dead-eyed man, hair receding prematurely, with a car and the offer of a lift and a plan and a knife and a shovel. Did we create the man by imagining him or was he idling there in his car regardless?

None of us can escape who we are when others aren’t looking; we can’t guess what we’re capable of until it’s too late.

Durton, New South Wales, 2001, the hottest November ever. Twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi has gone missing somewhere between school and home. Authorities are alerted, and a search is on. Her bff, Ronnie, believes that Esther has not met a dark end, and is determined to find her.

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Hayley Scrivenor – image from Writer Interviews blogspot

Durton is not exactly a garden spot, although a suggestive apple does put in an appearance. It is a secondary town, to a secondary city, a drive west from Sydney measured in double-digit hours. While there may be some appealing qualities to the place, what comes across about Durton is that it is the back end of nowhere, a physical manifestation of isolation, and thus a fitting image for the isolation experienced by its residents, albeit not quite actual outback. It is a place where there are some who are, wrongfully, ashamed of who they are, and there are some others who should be. The main exports of Durton appear to be fear, pain, abuse, and despair. The local kids call it Dirt Town, which is the title of the book in Australia. The name fits. Not sure why it was retitled Dirt Creek for its North American release.

The action begins on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, with the discovery of a body. Then it goes back to Friday, November 30, tracking the events that led up to that discovery, and continues for a few days beyond. Over the course of these days, we follow Ronnie Thompson and Lewis Kennard, Esther’s mates, Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother, and Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, the detective assigned the case, as they try to figure out where Esther is, and what happened to her, if anything. Ronnie is a first-person narrator, so we get a good close look at her. The Lewis, Constance, and Sarah chapters are in third person, but we still get a pretty good sense of what is going on inside them. The unusual element here is the presence of a first-person Greek chorus, speaking in the voices of children, and offering an omniscient view of the goings on.

I started a PhD in creative writing in 2016. It can be dangerous to ask me about collective narration because my research project looked at novels that had Greek chorus-like narration, and I can go on a bit. But I do have a clear sense of where Dirt Town the novel started. I sat down to write a short story from the point of view of the children of a small town, kind of like the one where I had grown up. What I wrote was largely just these kids coming home from school, but there was an energy in it that made me think it could be a novel. That writing is still in the book, pretty much as it was written. It occurred to me that if I was in these kids’ heads, then I needed something for them all to be looking at, thinking about: an experience that was as big as the town. One of the next flashes I had was that a girl had died, and the story grew from there. – from the Books and Publishing interview

Durton is a close-knit community in a way. Shelly McFarlane, for example, is best friends with Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother. Shelly’s husband, Peter, is brother to Ronnie Thompson’s mother. There are more, but the connections in Durston occupy a place higher than purely communal, but less than purely familial. And yet, there are many ways to be, or to feel, alone. Constance is English-born, but married a local, and feels very out of place, as the cowboy-ish appeal of her handsome husband has faded under the weight of experience. Lewis has a secret that makes him feel very alone and vulnerable. Sarah must contend with her recent, nasty, breakup with her partner. There are abused people here, who are afraid to tell anyone, lest they suffer even more, given how ineffective or feckless law enforcement has been about such things. This includes a long-ago rape that was never brought to justice. As a part of this, people wonder if they have somehow brought their misery down on themselves, which, of course, only adds to their feelings of isolation. What makes them different also makes them feel alone.

The story moves forward in a moistly straight line, after the initial jump back. There is a bit of history on occasion, for backstory, and there is overlap as different POVs occur simultaneously, reporting events Rashomon-style.

The mystery unravels at a comfortable pace, with clues being presented, conversations being had, and determinations being made about whether this or that connects to the missing girl. There is other criminality going on in Durton that may or may not be related, and there is a pair of missing twins not too far away, whose fate may or may not have anything to do with Esther’s.

The characters are sympathetic and appealing, which makes us eager to keep flipping pages to see if they are ok, in addition to wanting to find out what actually happened. There are the usual number of red herrings flopping about in the bucket. The fun of the clues is trying to figure out which are germane to Esther’s disappearance and which are intended to throw us off the scent. There is also a fair bit about life in Australia, this part of it, anyway. The most interesting element of the novel for me was the Greek chorus. It took a while to figure out who comprised it. That puzzle was fun, too. And the chorus offers a tool for exposition, which worked pretty well.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable, well, considering the subject matter, engaging read, with interesting characters and a mystery that Scrivenor draws you in to trying to solve. Dirt Creek is an excellent Summer entertainment, good, clean reading pleasure.

We are not sure if it was our childhood or just childhood in general that has made us the way we are.

Review posted – September 2, 2022

Publication date – August 2, 2022 (USA)

I received an eARE of Dirt Creek from Flatiron Books in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal and Instagram pages

Profile – from Booktopia

Hayley Scrivenor is a former Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. Originally from a small country town, Hayley now lives and writes on Dharawal country and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales. Dirt Town (our Book of the Month for June!) is her first novel. An earlier version of the book was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize and won the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Interviews
—–Booktopia – Ten Terrifying Questions with Hayley Scrivenor
—–Books + Publishing – Hayley Scrivenor on ‘Dirt Town’
—–The Big Thrill – Much More Than a Familiar Whodunnit by Charles Salzberg
—–Crimereads – COLLECTIVE NARRATORS: THE BEST USES OF THE FIRST-PERSON PLURAL IN LITERATURE
—–Mystery Tribune – A Conversation With Australian Mystery Writer Hayley Scrivenor

Item of interest – author
—–Kill Your Darlings – Show Your Working: Hayley Scrivenor

tiny Q/A
I wondered why Scrivenor had set her story in 2001 and if there were any particular significances to her characters’ names, so I asked, on her site. She graciously replied.

The simple answer to the setting question is that the character of Ronnie is twelve in 2001, and so was I – so it helped me keep my timeline straight!

For the names query, she referred me to an interview in which some of the name considerations are addressed. Here is her response from there:

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the names of characters. Some have been the same almost since the start: Veronica, the missing girl’s best friend, goes by ‘Ronnie’, and that always felt absolutely right for her character. The character of Lewis, a young boy who sees Esther after she’s supposed to have gone missing, gets called ‘Louise’ by his classmates, I had to reverse-engineer a name that kids could play with in that way. Sometimes, names can become a little in-joke with yourself, too. There is a character named ‘Constance’, who is the mother of the missing girl. I called her Constance because she changes her mind a lot, over the course of the story.

—–Author Interviews – Hayley Scrivenor by Marshal Zeringue

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller