Monthly Archives: January 2023

The House in the Pines by Ana Reyes

book cover

An ancient poplar loomed at the entrance to the abandoned road, its rounded mass of huddled gray limbs reminding her of a brain. She passed beneath its lobes, twigs branching like arteries overhead as she entered the forest.

Deep in these woods, there is a house that’s easy to miss.
Most people, in fact, would take one look and insist it’s not there. And they wouldn’t be wrong, not completely. What they would see are a house’s remains, a crumbling foundation crawling with weeds. A house long since abandoned. But look closely at the ground here, at this concrete scarred by sun and ice. This is where the fireplace goes. If you look deeply enough, a spark will ignite. And if you blow on it, that spark will bloom into a blaze, a warm light in this cold dark forest.

Maya Edwards is 25, not well off, ½ Guatemalan, ¼ Irish, ¼ Italian, with no career drive after getting her degree from Boston University. She is from Pittsfield, MA, where her mother still lives. Her father died before she was born. Not the only significant death in her life. When she was 18, her bff, Aubrey, died a mysterious death, at the hands, she believes, of a man they had both dated. But, despite her being present when it happened, there are no viable clues with which to make a case, and folks thought her nuts for even trying. Today Maya has a life, just moved in with her boyfriend, is about to meet his parents, when she sees a video on Youtube. A young woman, in a diner with her bf, suddenly keels over dead. A close look at her table partner reveals the same man who had killed her friend. She is terrified that he might continue to kill women and may become back to Pittsfield to clean up loose ends.

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Ana Reyes – image from her site

Maya keeps having dreams about a cabin in the woods, a welcoming abode, with a warm blaze in the fireplace, the burning pine logs adding their scent to the room, the log walls offering shelter from a strong wind. It is cozy, feels like home. But there is danger there as well. Frank is there in the dreams, always there. She struggles to understand the sounds she hears, but realizes they are coming from Frank, who appears suddenly behind her, and she wakes, drenched in sweat. So, what’s up with that?

The central mystery (well, there are two, the first one is whether Frank actually killed those two women, and if so how, and) what is the deal with the strange house in the woods that haunts her dreams, the House in the Pines of the title.

Maya is not the most reliable of narrators. She is going through withdrawal from Klonopin. It was prescribed to help her sleep, but the scrip can no longer be filled and she is trying to go cold turkey. She has used alcohol liberally to help her both sleep and drown out the darkness that troubles her. Is she imagining things? Are the drugs and alcohol causing her to hallucinate? Is the stress of white-knuckle withdrawal impairing her ability to reason?

I was living in Louisiana, working toward my MFA in fiction, and, like Maya,…had suddenly quit Klonopin after several years of taking it nightly for sleep. The doctor who had prescribed it back in LA never said anything about addiction, while my new Baton Rouge doctor treated me like an addict when I asked her for it. She cut me off cold turkey, and I went through protracted withdrawal syndrome, the symptoms of which inform Maya’s experience in the book. Writing about benzodiazepine withdrawal—albeit from her perspective—helped me through it. – from the Book Club Kit

The story flips back and forth between the present day and seven years prior. We get to see her friendship with Aubrey, and how Frank had come between them. We see how her current troubles with withdrawal and her determination to look into the Frank situation may be interfering with her current serious relationship.

Maya does her Miss Marple thing to try to find out what really happened to Aubrey, to find out how Frank killed her, and one more thing. During the few weeks in which she dated Frank, there were multiple episodes in which she lost hours of time. Did Frank drug her? There is peril aplenty, as we take Maya’s word that Frank is a killer, so all her activity might be putting her in mortal peril. If only the cops had taken her seriously, but you know the cops in such almost stories never do.

Pliny the Elder said Home is where the heart is, but how can a place that feels so home-like also be so terrifying? This reflects some events and concerns in Reyes’s life.

The inspiration was mostly subconscious. I was living alone in a new city, cut off from any place I’d call home, when I wrote the first draft. This lonely feeling inspired one of the book’s major themes, which is the universal yearning to return to a place and time of belonging. That theme shaped the story and helped me build the titular house in the pines. – from the Book Club Kit

Reyes incorporated several elements of her life into the book. In addition to struggles with addiction, both Maya and Ana are half Guatemalan. Both were raised in Pittsfield, MA. The book took seven years to write, and the gap between Aubrey’s death and Maya’s return to the scene of the crime is seven years.

In order to solve the mysteries, Maya must figure out the imagery in an incomplete book her father had been writing when he died in Guatemala. The references take one a bit afield, but if you dig into them, you will be rewarded. I posted some info in EXTRA STUFF.

Maya’s father’s book points to an important truth about the danger she’s in. For me this was a metaphor for inherited trauma. Like so many people with roots in colonized places, the violence of the past has a way of showing up in the present in unexpected and highly personal ways. This is true for Maya in a very literal sense. To save herself, she must understand a story written before she was born. – from the Book Club Kit

There are some fairy-tale-like references in here, but I am not sure they are much more than added in passing. One can see certainly see Frank as a seductive wolf, a la Little Red Riding Hood. A musical group dresses as the fairy godmothers, lending one to consider Sleeping Beauty, which is further reinforced by Maya’s several episodes of lost time, and, ironically, her difficulties with sleep. Woods, per se, have always been a source of fear in Western lore.

So, is it any good? Yep. Ana is certainly flawed enough for us to gain some sympathy, although she cashes in some of those chits with occasional foolish decisions. Secondary characters are a mixed lot. Her boyfriend is thinly drawn. Mom has more to her. Her teen bud, Aubrey, even more. Frank is an interesting mix of loser and menace. The strongest bits for me were a visit to Guatemala and the depiction of the attractiveness of the house. I will not give away the explanation for it all, but, while it may have a basis in the real world, I found it a stretch to buy completely. Still, righteous, if damaged, seeker of truth digging into the mysterious, while imperiled by a dark force, with little support from anyone, with a fascinating bit of other-worldliness at its core. I enjoyed my stay in the cabin. Page-turner material.

The image is both comforting and really sinister at the same time once we learn more about it.
Exactly. That’s definitely what I was going for, that dark side of nostalgia.
– from the Salon interview

Review posted – 01/27/23

Publication date – 01/03/23

I received an ARE of The House in the Pines from Dutton in return for a fair review, and another log on the fire. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

The House in the Woods Was a Reese’s book club selection for January 2023

Interviews
—–NY Times – Teaching Writing to Retirees Helped Ana Reyes Stay Focused by Elisabeth Egan
—–Salon – “House in the Pines” thriller author on the “dark side of nostalgia” with a narrator no one believes
—–Writer’s Digest – Ana Reyes: On Working The Writing Muscles by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Professional Book Nerds – Talking The House in the Pines with Author Ana Reyes by Joe Skelley – audio – 40:00

Items of Interest
—–Book Club Kit
—–Gnosis.org – The Hymn of the Pearl – The Acts of Thomas

Songs/Music
—– Emily Portman – Two Sisters – referenced in Chapter 5, although by a different performer
—–Bobby Darin – Dream Lover – playing at the Blue Moon Diner in Chapter 10
—–Mano Negra – El Senor Matanza – noted in Chapter 11 as Maya’s new favorite band
—– Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral – mentioned in Chapter 17
—– The Foo Fighters – There is Nothing Left to Lose – mentioned in Chapter 17
—–Lenny Kravitz – Mama Said – mentioned in Chapter 17

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Blaze me a Sun by Christoffer Carson

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

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

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

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Christoffer Carlsson– image from Ahlander Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 01/20/23

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

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

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

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

Links to the author’s Instagram and Twitter pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cosmogenesis by Brian Thomas Swimme

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

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

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

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

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Brian Thomas Swimme – image from Journey of the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – January 13, 2023

Publication date – November 15, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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