Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan

book cover

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

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

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

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Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 11/18/22

Publication date – 10/18/22

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Margaret Sullivan’s FB and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff

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

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

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness by Patrick House

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

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

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

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Patrick House – image from Attention Fwd ->

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – October 29, 2022

Publication date – September 22, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the House’s personal, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Wang Wei – Deer Park

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

Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss

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

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

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

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Meghan Gilliss – image from Skylark Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – October 14, 2022

Publication date – September 13, 2022

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

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

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

Links to Gilliss’ personal and Instagram pages

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

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

Item of Interest from the author
—–Bomb – excerpt

Item of Interest
—–William Blake – The Tyger

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen

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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

book cover

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

Some of It Was Real by Nan Fischer

book cover

Today an image slips through the carefully constructed peace . . .
Pale sand beneath my feet, a blue-green ocean, foam nibbling at my bare toes. Behind me, a castle—ornate turrets dotted with pale pink shells, a drawbridge made from delicately curved driftwood, beneath it, a moat where tiny paper boats rock in the breeze. A wave gathers on the horizon. It grows taller and white horses gallop across its face. When the wall of salt water strikes, the castle will be destroyed and with it a treasure, something precious . . .
The vision disintegrates. Ghostly lips brush my cheek. I know what’s coming next. A whisper I’ve heard intermittently my entire life.

“It’s important you understand that I don’t have a clear definition for what I do. Psychics use their intuition or spiritual guides to gain information about the past, present, or future. Mediums are channels that deliver messages from those who have passed over. I’ve been called a psychic-medium, and that’s as good a definition as any. But the truth is that I’m not sure why I hear voices, see images, sing at times, or scribble notes—it just happens and I can’t tell you how because I truly don’t understand it.”

Sylvie Young has just gotten a TV deal, the product of a successful run of live stage performances and a top-tier agent. Life is good, and about to get better. Sylvie’s shows are of the psychic sort. Select audience members, offer a connection to a lost one, solve some riddles, answer some unanswered questions, and mostly, offer comfort. Syl is very good at this. But not all of her connections are of the psychic sort.

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Nan Fischer – image from her site

Thomas Holmes is a cynical reporter on a mission. For personal reasons, Holmes believes that all psychics are fakers. It is elementary. His current project is to profile several psychic-mediums, intending to expose their chicanery and, if at all possible, destroy their careers. Which is something he knows a bit about. His own career in journalism has suffered some major blows, to the point where this major takedown piece may be his last chance to salvage his own career.

Both are struggling to deal with their origin stories (Sylvie even opens her shows by telling hers, at least what she knows of it) and their self doubts. Sylvie’s arc is a quest to find out what really happened to her biological parents, explain why she is beset by nightmares of a particular sort, and maybe discover where she acquired her very real personal talent. But is it real, really? Thomas suffered a trauma in his youth that has defined his life. Until he can confront that, the life he has made for himself will never be a proper fit. This is the true core of what Nan Fischer is writing about.

One of the seeds that started this novel with my fascination with imposter syndrome—the inability to believe one’s success has been legitimately achieved or deserved. I wanted to create a character, Sylvie, on the cusp of achieving great success but who doesn’t quite believe she deserves it. I made Sylvie a psychic as that gift is controversial—the perfect job for someone doubting her abilities due to all the critics! – from Hey It’s Carly Rae interview

Thomas has run into some dead ends digging into her past. There are no records of her parents’ supposed plane crash deaths when she was four. He wants her help to dig into this further. She has an interest, as it is a mystery to her as well. And if she can prove to him that she is not a grief vampire, he will drop her from his story. Of course, he expects he will never have to make good on that, as psychic powers are all BS, right? And the game is afoot.

the stories we tell from childhood that have shaped who we are – are based on old and sometimes faulty memories. It’s up to each of us to decide what to accept or discard from our origin stories and to decide who we ultimately want to be in life. – from the Jean Book Nerd interview

Many of the curtains Sylvie needs to part were placed there by others. Thomas erected his barriers to self-knowledge himself. Part of their interaction is Syl challenging Thomas to look deeper into the sources of his own demons, as Thomas challenges Sylvie to examine the ethics of how she is making her living. (“What was the fair lady’s game? What did she really want?” – Sherlock Holmes in The Second Stain)

As one might expect from a book categorized as romance, these two develop an attraction. That complicates matters. How can a journalist write an objective piece about someone with whom he is romantically engaged? He may be trying to take her down, but she is also looking for ways to manipulate him into a more benign view of her and her work. The cynic vs psychic dynamic is entertaining for a while, but Thomas’s relentless disregard of evidence gets a bit old. Really, dude? Still?

Fischer gives us a particularly interesting look at the profession of psychic-medium, offering a perspective that elevates it beyond being merely a connection to another side, whether real or faked. She connects it to something greater.

The structure is alternating chapters, his and hers, both first-person narratives. The voices are effectively different. It is a cat-and-mouse competition, although it could easily be a cat-and-dog one. Sylvie’s constant companion is a very large Great Dane, and Thomas travels with an elderly feline. (Fischer even manages to give her own dog, Boone, a cameo) He keeps trying to find holes in her schtick. She keeps trying to move him beyond the purely factual. Another Holmes might say when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, but Thomas clings to his biases tenaciously.

I was not all that taken in by their supposed attraction, never quite bought it, and wanted the sex scenes to be over quickly. But I did enjoy their mutual interest in helping each other out. I also had trouble with Sylvie’s relationship with her parents, who seemed far more reluctant to share information with their daughter than seemed reasonable, particularly considering that she is a grown-ass woman when she is pleading for intel about her past, intel that they have. Their rejection of her seemed unnatural, very un-parental.

What keeps the story moving along is a steady stream of interesting clues and the pair’s ingenuity on following up on them. There are some pretty nifty twists. It is fun tagging along on the procedural, mystery-solving element of the story. Overall, Some of It May Be Real is an engaging story, a mystery, wrapped in a bit of fantasy, a quest of self-discovery featuring an ongoing cynic-psychic battle, as both Sylvie and Thomas dig into their origins as a way to confront their demons and feelings of inauthenticity. It offers some intrigue, some chills and some very real tears. It is authentically entertaining.

What surprised me most about writing Some Of It Was Real was that I thought my research would lead me to a conclusion about what I believe. I watched documentaries, movies, and TV shows about psychics, clairvoyants and mediums and read studies and articles written by individuals whose goals are to prove the supernatural is a hoax. But in the end, the only real conclusion I drew was that some of it might be real. – from Thoughts From a Page Podcast

Review posted – August 26, 2022

Publication date – July 28, 2022

I received an ARE of Some of It Was Real from Berkley in return for a fair review. Wait, does the number four have any particular meaning for you? I am also seeing something shiny. Sparkles, maybe? No, stars. Yes, definitely stars. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal,
Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages
Profile – from her site

Nan Fischer is the author of Some Of It Was Real (July 2022, Berkley Publishing), and the young adult novels, When Elephants Fly and The Speed of Falling Objects. Additional author credits include Junior Jedi Knights, a middle grade Star Wars trilogy for LucasFilm, and co-authored sport autobiographies for elite athletes including #1 ranked tennis superstar Monica Seles, Triple Crown race winning jockey Julie Krone, Olympic gold medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, and Olympic gold medal gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Shannon Miller.

Her prior work was published under the names Nancy Richardson Fischer, Nancy Richardson, and Nancy Ann Richardson. Some of it was Real is her first book under the name Nan Fischer.

Interviews
—–Jean Book Nerd – Nan Fischer Interview – Some of It Was Real
—–Hey, It’s Carly Rae – Author Interview with Nan Fischer
—–Writers Digest – Nan Fischer: On Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Thoughts from a Page – Q & A with Nan Fischer, Author of SOME OF IT WAS REAL by Cindy Burnett
—–BookBrowse – An interview with Nan Fischer
with Katie Noah Gibson

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – full text of The Man Without a Country by Edward E. Hale – referenced in Chapter 19
—–The Poe Museum – full text of The Cask of Amontillado – by Edgar Allan Poe – referenced in Chapter 21

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

book cover

“Where did you put it?”
“Put what?”
“The knife,” he hisses. “What did you do with the damn knife, Liv? You took the goddamn knife when I was in the bathroom, and you walked off with it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. This must be a wrong number.” I resist the urge to hang up the phone. I feel compelled to know more.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep and forgot everything again?” he says.
He frightens me with the accuracy of his comment. “How do you know I woke up with no memory?”
“Because you lose your goddamn memory every time you fall asleep. Listen, here’s what I want you to do…”

“Lack of sleep does horrible things to a person’s mind,” said the social worker. “It can make some people psychotic.”

Liv Reese has a problem with sleep. Whenever she nods off, pop go the last two years, wiped clean. Thus the messages she has written to herself on her body, ( I look like a human graffiti board.) reminding her to remain awake at all costs. Not remembering might be useful for coping with a bad, newly lost relationship, but there is no upside to forgetting for Liv. Coming to in a cab crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, she has no understanding of the world in which she now struggles. On trying to get into her brownstone apartment, she finds it occupied, not by her roomie, but by strangers, who are not exactly eager to let her in, and it looks oddly changed. It was Summer last thing she remembers, but seeing her breath in the air challenges that. She finds a clue on her fingers and heads to what seems likely to be a familiar locale, a bar, Nocturnal. At least someone seems to know her there. “You’re afraid of what you do in your sleep.” he tells her. Should she be? That bloody knife she had been toting around does not ease her concerns.

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Megan Goldin – image from the Sydney Morning Herald

Reese is having a bad day. Over and over and over. Not quite the sort of charming fantasy rom-com-do-over one might see in, say Ground Hog Day or Fifty First Dates. Nope. There are no yucks to be found here. As you no doubt noted from the book quote at the top of this, she is in a bit of trouble. This is much more the Memento vibe, trying to stay alive while also desperate to find out what caused her to go blank two years ago. The same day does not repeat like a video game level. The real world continues on its merry, or not so merry way. It is only Liv who resets.

So what caused her to blank out? That is her quest, the driving force of the novel. All she has to do is figure out what all the writing on her body, and other locales, means, or can lead her to. Prominent among these is an all caps “STAY AWAKE” above her knuckles. “WAKE UP” adorns an arm, coincidentally the very thing painted in blood on the window of a man who had just been murdered.

Goldin must have been driving a Bis Rexx dump truck when she was loading up her protagonist. Being pursued by someone who is probably a psycho-killer, looking like a suspect in the murder, while not being able to recall anything from the past two years, including whether she is or is not, herself, a psycho killer, makes for a wee bit of stress. And then having to cope with all this while completely exhausted from lack of sleep, wired from mass consumption of coffee and anti-sleeping pills, and having no idea who you can trust. On the other hand, loading a character up with such a surfeit of misery makes it almost mandatory to root for her. It’s like Atlas is holding up the world and Zeus decides to toss on a few extra planets for laughs. Awww, c’mon, give the poor thing a break. So, sure, easy peasy. Have a nice day. Sheesh!

We actually get a day and a half with Liv, beginning on Wednesday 2:42 A.M. and ending on Thursday 2:45 P.M. Every chapter begins with a time stamp. It is an intense thirty-six hours. Did she or didn’t she murder that man? Will the cops or won’t they catch her and put her away for the murder? Will she or won’t she find out what caused her memory failure? Will she learn who the psycho is who is pursuing her? Will he catch her? Will she be able to stay awake until answers are found? Is there anyone on her side?

We see two time periods, the present and two years prior. The present is divided pretty much between Liv’s ongoing travails and Detective Darcy Halliday’s investigation of the recent murder. The two-year lookback is a singular third-person telling.

Chapters alternate in the present in groups between Liv’s ongoing travails, and Detective Darcy and her partner working the case. So, a few chaps on Liv, a few on the investigation, and then a lookback. There are sixty-six chapters in the book. Twenty-nine of these consist of Liv’s first-person narrative. Twenty-two follow Detective Halliday and her partner as they investigate. Thirteen look back to the events of two years earlier, as they lead up to the mind-blanking event. (Yes, I know that leaves the total a couple short. There are two that do not fit the major divisions.) All the chapters are short, so you can catch a few pieces of the novel whenever time allows, on the train, at bedtime, while waiting for your next crudité delivery to arrive, and not feel compelled to read on just to finish a long chapter. I mean, you might want to keep on anyway, but because the story had drawn you in, not because of any obsessive need to complete a chapter no matter how lengthy. I don’t know anyone who would do such a thing. Can’t imagine it.

Wait, wait, what is that beeping sound? Oh, no, another load for Liv! Not enough to contend with already, try adding (piling?) on no keys, no purse, no ID, no phone. She is about as isolated as a person can be in a city of eight million. This also counterbalances any hostility we might have toward her for being a food writer for a chichi magazine called Cultura.

Trauma can do terrible things to one’s brain. But wait there’s more. Liv has had that blank spot since her trauma, but was able to have a life anyway. However, that daily reboot problem is of very recent vintage, only a few weeks. Previously, she had been able to form new memories just fine. What changed? I found Goldin’s explanation for this a weak point in the story. I have a few other gripes, which I am marking here as spoilerish, so if you have not read the book, please feel free to skip this. (If the killer had such precise blade work how was that technique not done properly on Liv? The designer clue seemed cheap to me. There is no way a reader could have looked into this and come up with the book’s explanation, which seems not cricket. I managed to correctly figure out who the killer from two years ago, but it was based on totally misreading that clue. Right answer, wrong reason.)

I enjoyed the character of Detective Darcy Halliday, tough, smart, able to access her softer side to find ways to the truth. I also liked following the procedural investigation, but not so much her interaction with her more experienced male partner, Detective LaVelle. Just did not at all care whether they bonded with each other or not.

There are surely many, many films and books that this might be compared to, in addition to the few noted above. Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Tana French’s In the Woods, the latest iteration, Surface, on Apple TV. The Jason Bourne Series is the most famous. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another. Many live in the world of fantasy or science-fiction. But few of the real-world-based (not fantasy or sci-fi) amnesia tales outside Memento incorporate a daily reset. It definitely adds to the stress level. (For a book about a real real-world person afflicted with an inability to form new memories, you might want to check out Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich)

The tempo goes from frantic to OMG!!! So there is no danger of you drifting off while reading. Does it all come back to her? Oh, puh-leez. I am not gonna spoil that one. But you know how these things go. Sometimes it all comes back, often with another knock to the head. Sometimes nothing comes back, and sometimes parts return, but not the entirety. You will just have to see for yourselves. I am spoiling nothing, however, in telling you that we readers find out why she developed her initial amnesia two years back.

Red herrings are allowed to swim freely, which is perfectly ok. They can be delicious. Most of the supporting cast felt a bit thin. Darcy is well done, but most of the actors were not on the page long enough to develop all that much. A killer’s motivation seemed a stretch. NYC was exploited as a setting far less than it might have been. On the plus side, a (probably-deranged) performance artist adds a particularly poignant bit of menace. But the damsel-in-distress with serious memory issues and darkness descending is a pretty killer core, so the scaffolding erected around it is of lesser importance.

Bottom line is that this was a fun read, a page-turning thriller, an excellent (end-of) Summer treat. Best part is that if you fall asleep while reading, it will still be there for you when you wake up.

The white, as yet unpainted, part of the wall, is graffitied with an array of random sentences. Most are written in pen. A couple are in marker. One appears to be written by a finger dipped in black coffee.


Memories lie.
Don’t trust anyone.
He’s coming for me.

Review posted – August 19, 2022

Publication date – August 9, 2022

I received an eARE of Stay Awake from St. Martin’s Press in return for something, but I just cannot remember what. 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, and Twitter pages

From MacmillanBlockquote>MEGAN GOLDIN, author of THE ESCAPE ROOM and THE NIGHT SWIM, worked as a correspondent for Reuters and other media outlets where she covered war, peace, international terrorism and financial meltdowns in the Middle East and Asia. She is now based in Melbourne, Australia where she raises three sons and is a foster mum to Labrador puppies learning to be guide dogs.

Songs/Music
—–Paul Simon – Insomniac’s Lullaby – referenced in chap 1
—–Eagles – Hotel California – live, acoustic version – chap 37
—–Alicia Keyes – New York – referenced in chap 48

Item of Interest from the author
—–Book Lover Reviews – Does Suspense Have a Place In A Wired World?

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Fiction, Mystery, psycho killer, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller