Category Archives: Fiction

Blaze me a Sun by Christoffer Carson

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

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

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

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Christoffer Carlsson– image from Ahlander Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – 01/20/23

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

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

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

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

Links to the author’s Instagram and Twitter pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Mystery

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

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“Come.” John Pinten turns and puts his palm against the hull. “Do as I do.”
Mayken crawls forward and puts her palm next to his, flat against the planks. She sees how much smaller and cleaner her hand is. Too clean for a cabin boy. But John Pinten doesn’t seem to notice.
“She’s all that lies between us and the deep dark fathoms of the sea.” John Pinten’s voice grows quiet, grave. “Can you feel the ocean pulling at the nail heads, pressing against the planks, prizing the caulking? The water wants in.”

Old superstitions are rife now. The sailors lead the way. Words must be chanted over knots. Messmates must be served in a particular order. A change of wind direction must be greeted. Portents are looked for and translated. The cut of the wake noted. The shape of clouds debated…A lamp taken down into the hold will now burn green. Monstrous births plague the onboard animals. Their issue is hastily thrown overboard to prevent alarm. Eyeless lambs. Mouthless piglets. A litter of rabbits joined together, a mass of heads and limbs. The gardener harvests fork-tailed carrots from his boxed plot outside the hen coop.
“It’s the way of long journeys,” says Creesje. “They alter what people think and see.”

1628 – Mayken van der Heuvel heads out on a long, exciting, but very dangerous adventure. She is setting sail on the grandest ship of the era, the Batavia, to a place by the same name, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Well, in 1628, anyway. Today, we know it as Jakarta, Indonesia. Her journey is not being undertaken by choice, though. Mayken’s mother died giving birth to a child not her husband’s. The girl is being sent to her father, accompanied by a nursemaid, the kindly, but very superstitious, Imke. Mayken is nine years old.

There are many layers to this child: undergarments, middle garments, and top garments. Mayken is made of pale skin and small white teeth and fine fair hair and linen and lace and wool and leather. There are treasures sewn into the seams of her clothing, small and valuable, like her.
Mayken has a father she’s never met. Her father is a merchant who lives in a distant land where the midday sun is fierce enough to melt a Dutch child.

We follow Mayken’s adventures on this months-long journey across the world. But we know from the beginning that the ship will not complete its trip.

1989 – A nine-year-old boy has just endured a journey of his own.

Gil is made of pale skin and red hair and thrifted clothes. His shoes, worn down on the outsides, lend an awkward camber to his walk. Old ladies like him, they think he’s old-fashioned. Truck drivers like him because he takes an interest in their rigs. Everyone else finds him weird.

He never knew his father, and Mom kept them on the move all of his brief life, until her death. Gil has been sent to live with his crusty fisherman grandfather, Joss. To the place off the west coast of Australia where the off-course Batavia met its inglorious end. Researchers have been retrieving bits of the ship and its contents. The island is said to be haunted by the spirit of a young girl, Little May.

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Jess Kidd – image from The Bookseller – by Cordula Tremi

Kidd learned about the Batavia while casting about for a subject for her next novel. I will leave you to explore the real-life story here in Wikipedia and in the Sea Museum site.

Mayken and Gil’s stories are told in alternating chapters. The duration of their experiences, however, is not the same. Mayken’s time on the Batavia is considerably longer than Gil’s, on what is now Beacon Island. Kidd handles this disparity well, so that difference is not obvious.

Mayken is a particularly curious and adventurous little girl, exploring and experiencing the ship with a range of partners, despite her caretakers preferring for her to be a demure, proper young lady. She has a talent for gaining trust and affection from those around her, both children and adults. It comes in handy. Being a child, she carries some odd notions with her, and is susceptible to things that challenge credulity. She is convinced that there is a mythical beast in the deep hold of the ship. (The eel creature was an ancient monster and foe of all humankind. Its name was Bullebak.) Is the evidence she spies of its existence sharp perception or childish imagination? Being the child of a wealthy household, she gains a lot more latitude from those in charge than a street urchin might, which allows her to get away with slipping away from the “Above World” of the deck and passengers to the “Below World” where the crew lives and works.

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The Batavia replica was constructed between 1985 and 1995 at the Bataviawerf (Batavia shipyard) in Lelystad, The Netherlands. Image: Malis via Wiki Commons – image and text from Sea Museum

Gil is a lonely boy, who has seen little stability in his life, and more than his share of horror. Grandpa Joss is less than welcoming, (Gil’s mother had not exactly been a model daughter.) wants him to become a fisherman like him, an occupation to which Gil is ill-suited and strongly opposed. He finds a friend or two. Silvia, the young wife of an older fisherman (and hated rival to his grandfather) takes him under her wing. Dutch, an older deckhand, takes an interest in him as well. In addition, Gil acquires a companion of a different sort, Enkidu, a tortoise named for a bff from ancient literature.

There are challenges to survival for both Mayken and Gil, not just their initial de-parenting trauma and grief. In fact there is enough mirroring of their experiences for a carnival fun house. Both are, effectively, orphaned only children, with dead mothers and absent fathers, sent to live with relations after the death of their mothers. Both explore strange new places, with the assistance of those more familiar. Both have a belief in the reality of supposedly mythical beings, finding it easier to seek explanations for the world in cultural fantasies than in the awfulness of the humans around them. (The shadow-monster darkens and becomes solid. It is terrible. Slime slicks and drips over ancient barnacled scales. Eyes, luminous and bulging. Gills rattling venomously. A great, festering eel-king.) It is called a Bunyip.

Both are outsiders, in peril from people in their community. There is plenty more. But both come into possession of a stone with a hole in it, that is supposed to have special properties, a witch-stone, or hag-stone. The very same one. It is a link across three hundred sixty years, connecting their parallel experiences. As children, neither has control over much of anything, so they are both at the mercy of the adults around them, not all of whom are benign. With limited immediate familial resources, they are trying to create a kind of family for themselves.
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This engraving depicts three scenes associated with the loss of the Dutch ship Batavia in 1629. Top: Batavia approaches the Houtman Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia at night. Lower right: the vessel aground on a reef with the crew in boats attempting to refloat it. Lower left: the state of the Batavia the next day, and the passengers and crew abandoning the ship. ANMM Collection 00004993

One of the wonderful things about this novel is the view we get of a lengthy ocean voyage in the 17th century.

The physical research helped. “Bumping my head about 400 times as I walked around the ‘Batavia’ replica, it really helped to get a physical sense of the life. The same with the island, walking around and seeing the barrenness and feeling the elements.” – from The Bookseller interview

The demise of the ship is terrifying, but not so much as the demise of civilization that follows for the survivors. Existential threats abound in 1989 as well, for Gil and others.

There are many compelling secondary characters. Several on the ship stand out, a soldier, John Pinten, the ship’s doctor, Aris Jansz, Holdfast, a denizen of the rigging, who snatches Mayken up. Imke the nursemaid is a fun addition, and Creesje, who looks to help Mayken going forward, is a warm, nurturing presence. Those surrounding Gil are likewise interesting. Gil’s colorful grandfather, Joss, goes through some changes. Dutch is a warm force, as is a researcher, on the island looking into the wreck.

While Mayken and Gil are entirely fictional, Kidd has populated her story with many of the actual people who were on the Batavia. The presence of those historical personages gives the events that take place in the novel even greater heft. The kids are very nicely drawn, and will engage your interest and sympathy.

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Wallabi Island (left), Beacon Island (centre) and Morning Reef (right). Image: Hesperian with NASA satellite photos via Wiki Commons. – image and text from Sea Museum

Tension ratchets up for both Mayken and Gil. While we know the fate of the Batavia, we do not know the fate of all those she carried.

Unlike in her previous book, Things in Jars, which dealt very considerably with things fantastical, the unreality of the creatures May and Gil perceive is much more subtle. The creatures both claim to be real may or may not be. But both creatures serve admirably as metaphors for the awfulness of humanity.

While this may not be the best possible choice for reading on a ship-based vacation, it is a moving and fascinating read for landlubbers. Kidd writes with the touch of the poet, adorning her compelling, moving story with sparkling descriptive finery, while offering us a child’s-eye view of the most remarkable ship of its time, and telling a tale of doom. Both Gil’s and Mayken’s stories are strong enough masts to have sailed alone, but together they make a weatherly craft and catch a strong wind, easily speeding past potential story-telling shoals.

“How do you describe dread, Gil? That’s what the bunyip is: an attempt to give fear a shape.”
Gil thinks on this.
“Everyone’s fear looks different,” Birgit continues. “So everyone’s creature looks different. But they all eat crayfish, women, and children. That seems to be universal.”
“They’re just warnings for kids. Not to play near water or talk to strangers.”

Review posted – December 16, 2022

Publication date – October 18, 2022

I received an ARE of The Night Ship from Atria in return for a fair review, and a small, ancient piece of (maybe) bone, recently dug up in our back yard. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Kidd’s personal, Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Bookseller – Jess Kidd discusses her latest novel, new perspectives and maritime disasters by Alice O’Keefe
—–BNBook Club Jess Kidd discusses SCATTERED SHOWERS with Miwa Messer and Shannon DeVito – video – 41:28 – forget the title – they talk about The Night Ship

My review of an earlier book by the author
—–Things in Jars

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on The Batavia
—–Sea Museum – The Batavia
—–Wiki on Beacon Island
—–The Wayback Machine – Batavia’s Graveyard
—–Western Australian Museum – Batavia’s History
—–Dutch Folklore Wikia – Bullebak
—–American Museum of Natural History – The Bunyip
—–Wiki on Bunyip

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

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One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It began in 1945 as a radio talk, Memories of Christmas, for the Welsh Children’s Hour program. He later merged bits from a 1947 piece called Conversation About Christmas and sold it to Harper’s Bazaar in 1950 as A Child’s Memories of Christmas in Wales. In 1952, Caedmon Records asked him to record himself reading it for the B-side of a collection of his poems. The title we have come to know for the piece, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, was from this recording. Thomas had been unable to remember the title used in the Harper’s magazine version, so recalled as best he could. It turned into kind of a big deal, as the recording is seen as seminal in starting the audiobook industry in the USA.

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Dylan Thomas in the White Horse Tavern – image from Peter Harrington – The Journal – photo by Bunny Adler

Set in Swansea in the 1920s, Thomas offers a fragmented memory, recalling not just one particular Christmas but his childhood Christmases in general.

One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

It is a mix of his perspective as a child and his finer focus, looking back as an adult.

The particular Christmas that stands out includes images of a neighbor’s house catching fire

The overall timbre is warm and loving. But there are hints as well of darker elements in the world around. Some bred from imagination

the winds through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe web footed men wheezing in caves… perhaps it was a ghost… perhaps it was trolls…

Others from observation

We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill…I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out… Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion; and some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sat on the very edge of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.

There is also mention of chasing the English and bears in deep Welsh history, a reference to wars that ended with English subjugation of Wales.

The story is about the sequence of events from one Christmas afternoon, when a neighbor’s calls of “Fire” draw the fire brigade and all breathing neighbors, the narrator and his co-conspirators addressing the possible conflagration with the launching of multiple snowballs. It offers a portrait of youthful shenanigans, and homes filled with boisterous “uncles” and tippling, excluded “aunts.”

Gleeful image-making permeates

“Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunder-storm of white, torn Christmas cards.”

The boys imagine themselves as Eskimo-footed Arctic marksmen, snow-blind travelers on north hills, see their large boots as leaving hippo prints, and approach a maybe-haunted house with carols.

It is a tale about memory itself as much as about Thomas’s recollections of childhood, as individual experiences, although some are specifically recalled, merge into sometimes single, catch-all recollection.

Please do listen to Thomas’s reading, a poet’s reading of prose, elevating his story to a form somewhere between literature and song. A smile sprung forth on my face on hearing this (yes, I have heard it more than a couple of times before. The smile returns every time.) and lasted well beyond the delivery of the final sentence. It would, on occasion, pull upwards, straining my cheeks and gums, before settling back a little in preparation for the next assault. The scenes he recalls, and his snarky commentary, will make you smile, probably in recognition of the sort, if not the specifics, maybe even laugh out loud. It always gets a passel of LOLs from me.

The language is celestial, as is his world-class talent for imagery and word-play. It will lift your spirit and make it hover for the duration of the reading, maybe even a while beyond. You could do worse than making the playing of this recitation a seasonal tradition.

One thing this story is likely to do is to spark personal recollections of Christmases of our youth. I would love to hear about yours.

Thomas’s recalled 1920s Christmases resonated with my memories of Christmases in the 1950s and 1960s Bronx. Mine were certainly not all snow-filled, but, as with Thomas’s recollections, they all occupy the well of memory with a fine dusting of white. Unlike Thomas, there is not a single Christmas that stands out from my childhood. Like his, mine have taken on a general character, merging into a common fuzzy-edged recollection.

The space between Thanksgiving and the special morning was always filled with great excitement and anticipation. Going to see the Christmas displays at Macy’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor’s, and even more stores, became a tradition, as was visiting the massive tree at Rockefeller Center. I got to sit on Santa’s lap at Macy’s at least once, but had sense enough to be skeptical even as a sprout. Why would someone claiming to be Santa’s helper look and dress just like him? Something clearly did not add up. The hunt for presents hidden in closets, cupboards, and underneath anything that had an underneath was a seasonal sport.

On Christmas Eve, my sisters (all three much older) would head out for midnight mass, fresh in finery, make-upped, seeming serious. I had no notion at the time that such a display might have been as much a mating ritual as an act of piety. I was spared that particular form of torture, (a Mass even longer and presumably more unendurable than the ones I was forced to attend every week) excused by my youth. Despite my concerted attempts to remain awake hoping to spot Santa, most years I was long asleep before they all arrived back home, cherry-cheeked, coats and hats asparkle as the dim light inside our front door was magnified by reflections from unmelted flakes.

Christmas morning was a bubbling mass of excitement as we all gathered in the living room, and took turns opening gifts. There was always one for me, and for my brother labeled “From Santa,” supplemental to the gifts from our parents, and each other.

As if we were not wired enough from a night of short sleep followed by a meth-level increase in respiration, Christmas breakfast tended to be French toast, slathered with Aunt Jemima’s, Log Cabin, or Vermont Maid. Attending Mass was mandatory, of course. It is a wonder the church did not crumble to the ground from all the child and pre-adolescent vibrations juddering the pews. We would always unwrap an annual gift, a fruit cake, from my father’s aunt, a mysterious figure I never actually met.

In the years since I have come to think of Christmas as akin to the baseball season for us Mets fans. The lead up was all excitement, wondering what goodies might come our way, hoping for some surprises, and that some gift wishes might come true. The reality was rarely very satisfying, filled as it was with things like socks and pajamas. There were toys, of course, but usually of the Woolworth’s sort, things like cap pistols, and plastic trains that rolled uneasily around a circle of plastic rails. Occasionally, there would be something more interesting. A Davy Crockett coonskin cap was a memorable hit. It was my brother who actually got me some of the more exciting, larger-ticket items, a yellow, battery-operated bulldozer, a robot that shot missiles, a wireless walkie-talkie that was pretty cool for 1960.

The day itself was always an opportunity for some of the neighborhood kids to try out brand new sleds. The Bronx may not have San Franciscan hills (although the West Bronx is particularly rich with steep slopes) but there were plenty of hills, snow, slush and ice-covered land to be challenged. Even if you did not get a new sled, there was certain to be a neighbor kid who had, and there was a chance he might let you take it for a ride. Of course, there were always cardboard boxes and trash can lids that offered a sliding descent if not a lot of control. Not that it ultimately made a lot of difference to me. It was while attempting to steer an actual sled down a Tremont Avenue sidewalk that my face made a dent in a stubbornly unmoving tree. Sadly, sledding was one of many skills I never managed to acquire. The tree in our tiny living room was real, in the early years, but as adolescence approached, and my parents ploughed further into middle age, it was supplanted by a disappointing plastic imitation.

The toys were soon in pieces. The new PJ’s supplanted their high-water, short-sleeved predecessors. Winter settled in, and the disappointment of not getting what you really wanted faded. Dashed hope settled back underground, like a perennial, biding its time until the next season arrived for it to sprout forth once again, all shiny and new.

When I had children of my own, I tried to install a few elements to make the day special. We had a tree of course. Watching It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas Eve tradition, and I read The Polar Express to them at bedtime. The girls would always find, on Christmas morning, a letter from Santa (typed, in an appropriate font, in red. My hideous penmanship would have been too obvious.) encouraging the sorts of feelings and behavior one might expect from a benign spirit. I made my own Christmas cards for many years, with their names included among the From list. But it was mostly something for me. My greatest parental Christmas triumph, however, was singular. The girls were on the verge of disbelieving. We had recently moved into a new place, a house that featured a beautiful, albeit no longer functional fireplace. I carved a linoleum cut of reindeer hoofs, and proceeded to make hoof prints leading from the fireplace into the living room and kitchen. The girls could not believe that any parent would willingly make such a huge mess, and THEY BOUGHT IT!

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Cover of the original Caedmon recording

The season has settled into another phase for us. ¥es, there is still a tree, although this year is likely to be the last of the real ones. There is my wife and our close immediate relations. The tree skirt is reliably populated with resting felines. My children are scattered so are not a presence, which is sad. I have long since ceased making my own cards, Goodreads review-writing having absorbed that artistic impulse. We still have a special meal, including some foods that only appear once a year. We still exchange gifts on Christmas day. And on Christmas eve I harangue my wife into tolerating yet another showing of It’s A Wonderful Life. I still end up in tears. I can only hope that my kids (all grown up now) have happy memories of the holiday, and that they have found some traditions to carry forward for their own (someday) children.

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Review posted – December 4, 2022

Publication date – 1952, in this form, anyway.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the history of the poem – very informative
—–Faded Page – The full text in multiple formats
—–Harper Audio on Soundcloud – Dylan Thomas’s reading – 25:07 – with an introduction by Billy Collins – worth checking out
—–* Encyclopedia.com – a Child’s Christmas in Wales
—–Vinyl Writers – Dylan Thomas’ Caedmon Readings: Childhood, Death, and the Welsh Wild Wonder

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, Non-fiction, Short Stories, YA and kids

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

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Once war is on men’s minds, Selica had said, it festers within, claiming them.

For a soldier to let his enemy live despite the entrenched inclination to kill touched my heart with a flame. And as he looked out on our land, on the people dying and bleeding on it, no matter if they were Russian or Mongol, I saw pain, deep and endless and raw, open inside him like a ravine about to swallow us. There was light there, light that left me hopeful. Perhaps life, possibly even goodness, did exist, even in a soldier, and it prevailed in the world after all.

Baba Yaga, aka Bony Legs, has gotten a bad rap. Ivan the Terrible, however, deserves all the lousy press that can be heaped upon him. Terrible seems far too tame a word, The monstrous, the psycho-killer, the unspeakable, the mindless slayer of mankind, and on, and on, [insert your pejorative here]. (Of course, this is the portrait presented in the book. The real-life Ivan may have had cause for his paranoia, given the considerable opposition of the gentry to many of his policies. Find out more in this small piece in Britannica.)

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Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – image from her site

The most common images of Yaga are of a frightening witch, tooling about in a strange vehicle, trapping and devouring children, and generally doing dirt to people, a personification of evil. But even in traditional lore, she is sometimes shown with a softer side, a healer instead of a tormenter, a consoler, a comforter instead of a horror. She has been seen as a personification of nature, a Slavic version of Persephone. She appears as a change agent in many stories, a trickster, helping the hero or heroine fulfill their quest.

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Image from The House of Twigs

I had written two books that had gone nowhere. Totally uninspired, almost desperate, I turned to the Russian folktales I had grown up with as a child. Baba Yaga loomed large in these stories—her elusive and mercurial character, her enchanting chicken-legged hut, her terrific mortar and pestle mode of transport, her sharp tongue and fearsome appearance, unsurprising for a woman of knowledge living alone in the wood.
As it turns out, some scholars believe the Baba Yaga we know—the old, ugly hag from the fairy tales—is based on, or is a descendent of, a fertility and earth goddess worshiped by ancient pagan Slavs. I was instantly fascinated by how a goddess could become a witch and just knew I had to write a book not about the infamous hag, but about the little-known woman named Yaga.
– from the Writer’s Digest interview

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A painting portraying Baba Yaga. According to Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga was a witch who often preys on children to eat them. However, some accounts present her as a wise and helpful creature. The painting was created in 1917 and is now located at the House Museum of Viktor Vasnetsov in Moscow.

Gilmore is looking to give Yaga some better press, make her more human in some ways, more of a bad-ass superhero in others. She has a team, of course. (Y-men?) The house on chicken legs that is the very definition of creepy, has been transformed into Little Hen, a supportive, nurturing friendly character who might have been the original mobile home. When Yaga speaks to Little Hen she regards her as somewhere between a beloved pet and a partner. Dyen (meaning day) is a considerable wolf. He (thankfully) is Yaga’s primary means of high speed transportation, while also offering his considerable fierceness. Noch (meaning night) is an owl. Noch specializes in reconnaissance and intel-gathering. They share Yaga’s immortality.

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Xénia Hoffmeisterová [cs], Ježibaba [cs] (2000)

As a provider of potions for this and that, Yaga has a following. Among those is the tsar’s wife, the tsaritsa, whom she has known for a long time. She is suffering from an illness that the court physicians cannot seem to touch. Yaga helps her out, but suspects foul play. Although she would prefer to remain safely in her house in the woods, she must go to Moscow to find out who is doing this to Anastasia Romanovna, a kind, sweet young woman. It would appear that Yaga and crew are not the only immortals wandering about. The tsar has fallen under the influence of a dark-hearted ageless sort, someone Yaga knows. And the game is afoot.

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Image from King Edward’s Music

Tsar Ivan is not exactly the best administrator, and it is not long before he is laying waste to large swaths of the country, under the guidance of a dark force. Whether getting there because of his genetic inheritance, or because his mind had been poisoned by a demonic sort, (The actual Ivan was quite superstitious, taking an interest in witchcraft and the occult.) Ivan, who seems at least somewhat rational when we meet him, is soon barking mad, seeing enemies everywhere, even among friends, and showing no hesitation about slaughtering anyone who displeases him. Yaga loves her Mother Russia and considers it her patriotic duty to defend her against enemies foreign and domestic. Ivan definitely counts among the latter. So, superhero vs supervillain.

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Ivan Bilibin, Baba Yaga, illustration in 1911 from “The tale of the three tsar’s wonders and of Ivashka, the priest’s son” (A. S. Roslavlev)

There are levels of existence here with diverse characteristics, lands of the dead and living, a glass mountain, with spells aplenty. Yaga’s adventures might remind you of western mythology and Campbellian quest forms having to do with descending to hell in order to emerge better armed to take on whatever. Yaga needs help from other immortal sorts to accomplish her mission, which becomes pointedly clear later in the book. In the shorter term, she is faced with carnage in Russia, and trying to find ways to stop or even just slow it down.

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Baba Yaga depicted in Tales of the Russian People (published by V. A. Gatsuk in Moscow in 1894)

There is even a bit of romance to counterbalance some of the considerable blood-letting.

After I had witnessed my first birthing not ten years into my life, Mokosh had explained to me the intricacies of lovemaking and child making. “Though immortals can birth other gods and half gods,” she had said, gently, “it is not simple for us, with mortals above all. Most of the time, it happens not. It is even harder for half gods. If it happens, it does so for a reason. It is willed by the Universe.” I had known many men over the centuries, both mortal and immortal. Not once had my trysts ended in anything other than fleeting pleasure or pointless regret. I knew it would never happen for me.

But then she meets Vasily Alekseyevich Adashev, studly warrior, but mortal, which is a problem. It gets complicated. He is probably in his 20s or 30s, she is several hundred. (Baba Cougar?) It is a delightful element.

This is a time of transition in Russia, when the old gods were being replaced by the Christian invader. But local loyalties were sometimes with the old and sometimes with the new. Yet, the old gods were still actively interfering in human activities. Getting a look at such a tumultuous period in Russian history is one of the bonuses of this book.

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Image from Meet the Slavs

The view of reality Gilmore presents is informed by her childhood exposure to Russian mythology. She was born in Moscow and spent her early years there. Fairy tales from childhood figure large, particularly stories set in Old Russia. (Gilmore would have included even more, but maybe in some future work.) Setting her tale in medieval times felt right, which led to focusing on Ivan as THE medieval tsar. It helped that he made an ideal villain, given his location in history, his interest in the occult, and his apparently mass murderous sociopathy. What makes a guy go there?

This being a book by a Russian-born author, about Russia, you can expect that many characters will be referred to be multiple names. And it can be tricky discerning the good Ivans, Vasilies and Alexes from the bad ones. I read an ARE, so cannot say if the final print (and epub) versions contain character lists. If your copy lacks one, you might want to start your own. My minimal gripes about the book have to do with the attention required to keep everyone straight, and a need for a primer on the structure of everything in Old Russian lore. How many layers of afterlife are there? How does one move from to another? It can be eye-crossing keeping this in order.

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Image from Amino Apps

That said, I found The Witch and the Tsar a delightful, satisfying read. Yaga was a very appealing character. Gilmore has succeeded in making her relatable, and her companions appealing. The devastation wrought by Ivan and those driving him provide all the motive force anyone might require to do everything possible to stop it, which gives us a lot to root for. The romantic element is a nice touch. Added payload on Russian history, folklore, and old religion is most appreciated. I have provided a few links in EXTRA STUFF to more about Yaga in folklore. I urge you to check those out. Baba Yaga may have had plenty of unpleasant things written about her, and many a hideous image created, but in The Witch and the Tsar, Yaga is looking pretty good.

Mother had taught me the immortal side of earth magic, of doing without awareness, without feeling. With Dusha, I learned to listen to the natural world around me, not only to the sky, the trees, the waters, the very air, but also to myself.

Review posted – 11/25/22

Publication date – 9/20/22

I received an ARE of The Witch and the Tsar from Ace of Berkley of Penguin Random House 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 Gilmore’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Gilmore is hard at work on her next novel, with a draft due to her editor in September. This one will be a gothic, set in the 1920s, after the revolution. Two sisters confront their past in their old ancestral house in Moscow. Pub date TBD.

Interviews
—–Malaprop’s Bookstore & Cafe – The Book of Gothel: Mary McMyne in convo with Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – video – Gilmore reads from the beginning of her book – 0:00 to 21:48. Mary McMyne then reads from her book – to 39:43. Then Stephanie Jones-Byrne interviews them from about 40 minutes
—–Writer’s Digest – Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Paulette Kennedy – DEBUT SPOTLIGHT: Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Items of Interest from the author
—–Paste Magazine – excerpt
—–discussion guide from her site

Items of Interest
—–World History Encyclopedia – Baba Yaga
—–Literary Hub – Baba Yaga Will Answer Your Questions About Life, Love, and Belonging by Taisia Kitaiskaia
—–Britannica on Ivan the Terrible

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

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

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

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

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

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Jason Mosberg – from his site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – September 23, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Mosberg’s personal and Twitter pages

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

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

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

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Filed under California, Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

The Very Secret Society Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

book cover

…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

book cover

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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