Category Archives: Fantasy

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

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

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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The Very Secret Society Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Sangu Mandanna – image from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – September 16, 2022

Publication date – August 23, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from her site

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page

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

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

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

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

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

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Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative

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

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

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Image from from TV Tropes

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

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

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

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Image from Television Heaven

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

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia

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

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

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

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Image from Filo News

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

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

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

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From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix

Review posted – September 9, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Novella

Some of It Was Real by Nan Fischer

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

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

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

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Nan Fischer – image from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – August 26, 2022

Publication date – July 28, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

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“Your problem,” he told himself as he headed back to the Devil’s Vale, “is that you can’t leave well enough the hell alone.”

“Kid walks in here with a bullet lodged in him, I gotta call the cops. Kid walks in showing obvious signs of abuse, I have to contact a social worker. Kid walks in pregnant, I need to inform the parents. Beyond that, for the most part, I’m supposed to keep my trap shut.”
“Who do you call if a kid walks in pregnant, with a bullet wound, showing signs of abuse?” Sam asked.
“A career counselor,” she said, brushing her hair back, “’cause I’m outta here.

Ok, island off the Massachusetts coast, private school, Danforth Putnam. (Thomas Danforth and Ann Putnam were judge and accuser in the Salem trials). Why a high school?

I still think high school is one of the scariest places there is. It’s a place where human beings, who are barely more than children emotionally and mentally, face calamitous, potentially life-ruining choices, while approaching the height of their physical powers and sexual energy…Boarding school is all that with no parental supervision, which just amplifies its Lord of the Flies quality. – from The Big Thrill interview

Friend of the Devil is an enclosed environment thriller of a familiar sort. Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (the original book had a different, dodgier title) An eleventh century book has gone missing and SATCO Mutual, (we can imagine what the SAT stands for) the insurer on the hook, has sent Sam (for Sam Spade) Gregory to bring it back. Identifying the perp is not all that challenging for our gumshoe, but there is more to the tale than nabbing a thief. What is a prep school doing with such an ancient book? What is the nature of the book? Why was it stolen? The questions mount. Like what happened to that pre-teen who supposedly returned to the mainland to be adopted? Is he really having a better life?

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Stephen Lloyd writing on an impressively retro word processor – image from The Big Thrill – image by Stephen Lloyd

Sam is a fun lead, with military hair, a capacity for violence, PTSD hellfire memories of ‘Nam, and not much else, and a determination to see his job through to completion. And then people begin dying, with a hint of brimstone in the air. Sam takes his licks, getting repeatedly knocked out in a running joke, but keeps on keepin’ on, following leads and doing what he does.

Harriet (the spy) is our student cozy investigator, epileptic, a nerd extraordinaire, black, bullied, and dogged. She gets her licks in by writing exposes in the school paper. If Sam fails to get to the very bottom of all there is, Harriet is sure to find her way there. Their paths can be expected to cross, eventually.

It is 1980. No cell phones. Memory of the Vietnam War is still fresh. Reagan has arrived in a sulfurous chariot to do some lasting damage to the nation. There is a specimen of that breed at the school, who behaves as one might expect, receiving some unwanted insight in return.

The references keep on coming. Mr. Chesterton is named for G.K.. There are plenty more, overt and not. Laura Hershlag is named for the title character of one of the classic noir films. Dr. Spellman is named for a character in Sabrina. There are references to Poe’s The Raven, the Tales of Hoffman and plenty more, a veritable cornucopia for those who enjoy playing literary treasure hunt.

The staff at this school are not the friendliest. Sam interviews Ms. (Annabel? ) Lee, the librarian, whose cat is named for Alistair Crowley.

When she saw Sam, her mouth twisted into a citrus pucker. “May I help you?” she asked in a voice that could freeze pipes.

The students are no prize either. We expect rich kids to be spoiled, but even the scholarship kid is up to no good. One palooka hopes to juice his way into the NFL, while using his considerable physical brawn to dark purposes. Others are not much better.

Ok, so I had a forked reaction to this one. First is that there were multiple LOL moments, including one ROFL. This is a HUUUUUGGE plus. Not at all surprising from one of the main writers and executive producers of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. And I loved all the references.

Second, was that it felt lean, to the point of gaunt. Not quite a novel in length, FotD settles in at a more novella-ish 45,000 words, give or take. Supporting cast was mostly of the cardboard cutout variety. Yes, some background is offered, but only enough to make them cast shadows. (Well, assuming that the characters are actually capable of casting shadows) This is a product of Lloyd’s very successful TV career, (four Emmy nominations) in which the clock is always ticking and descriptions and self-reflection are seen as tools of the devil’s workshop. (which may be in Iowa) There is plenty of gruesomeness, but it is handled with a light touch which, I know, sounds like an oxymoron, and maybe it is. There is a fabulous twist, which is always a delight.

Sam Gregory is a fun lead, an investigator with a Chandler-esque, noir sense of humor, and a war-veteran’s issues with sleep. Harriet, honor student in the civilian investigator role, is one of the better cast members. Their perspectives alternate throughout. It moves along at an over-the-limit pace, while building up a body count, and revealing more and more witchy elements.

Bottom line is that this a devilishly (helluva?) fun summer read. You will blaze right through, pausing on occasion to fall out of your seat laughing. Your brain can occupy itself with catching as many references as it can. This is a fast, pure entertainment, with only an occasional side-glance at real-world concerns. You will not risk eternal damnation if you read this one, so long as you keep your inner demons where they belong, but you may hurt yourself laughing.

Review posted – May 27, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of Friend of the Devil from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in return for a fair review, and the tiniest sliver of a soul. Thanks, folks

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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Lloyd seems interested in writing a sequel, having set this one up to allow for the possibility. I hope he does.

Possible Titles for Volume 2 – Here, I’ll get you started
Dead Lasso
Demon Elementary
Devil Knows Best
Devil-ish
Distant Relation of the Devil
Everybody Loves the Devil
The Fresh Prince of Level Nine
Flight of the Demons
How I Met Your Devil
Kids Say the Most Demonic Things
Married with Demons
The Marvelous Mrs Scratch
Modern Satanic Family
Young Beelzebub

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

From Penguin Random House

Stephen Lloyd is a TV producer and writer, best known as an executive producer of award-winning shows such as “Modern Family” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Interviews
—–The Crew Review – Stephen Lloyd | Friends of the Devil – 50:42 – by Sean Cameron, Christopher Albanese, Mike Houtz
—–* The Big Thrill – Up Close: Stephen Lloyd by Allison McKnight

Songs/Music
—–The Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil
—–The Rollingstones – Sympathy for the Devil

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Noir, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

book cover

I now understand why desperate people find religion, or end up believing in aliens or conspiracy theories. Because sometimes the rational answer doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you have to look outside the box. And my hope-desperation twofer had led me way outside the box, all the way to a Willow Green allotment in fact, where, God help me, I was waiting to meet a bunch of people who even the most charitable among us would label “raging nut-job weirdos.”

You think your relationship is complicated? You have no idea what complicated is. Nick and Bee, now that is a truly complicated pairing. Guy sends a flaming message, raging about (and to) a client who has not paid for editing/ghost-writing services, and it somehow gets misdirected. Woman checking her e-mail receives said message and responds with great, subdued humor. And we have achieved our rom-com meet cute.

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Sarah Lotz – image from A.M. Heath

Obviously the pair hit it off, as messages go zooming back and forth across the wires, ether, or whatever, and we get to the big Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant rendezvous scene. As this is London instead of New York, it is set under the large clock at Euston Station instead of at the top of the Empire State Building. And, well, as one might expect, it does not come off as planned, putting a huge dent in the “rom.” Pissed, Bee is about to write it all off when her bff convinces her to keep an open mind, and a good thing too. Turns out, her correspondent had indeed shown up, well, in his London, anyway. The two have somehow been the beneficiaries of a first-order MacGuffin, well a variant on one, anyway. Nick and Bee, while they may be able to exchange messages, are actually living in parallel universes. So I guess that makes their connection more of a meet moot?

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Big Clock at Euston Station image from AllAboard.eu

Still, the connection, divided as they are, is real. They try to figure out what to do. And that is where the next literary angle comes into play. Sarah Lotz adds into the mix references to Patricia Highsmith’s (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) Strangers on a Train. But not for the purpose of knocking off each other’s unwanted spouse. (Although now that you mention it…) If they can’t be together, maybe they can use their insider knowledge to find their side’s version of each other. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries for very similar girl? I mean really, what would you do if you found the one, but were precluded by the laws of physics from realizing your dream?

Lotz has fun with literary/cinematic references, even beyond the two noted above. There is a Rebeccan mad mate, chapters with titles like Love Actually and One Wedding and a Funeral, and on. This is one of the many joys of this book. Catching the references, the easter eggs deftly scattered all about. Cary Grant’s Nickie in An Affair… is Nick here. Rebecca of the story of that name is Bee in one world, Rebecca in another.

There are lovely secondary characters, Bee’s bff, Leila, is the sort of strong supporting sort a fraught leading lady needs. Nick engages with a group of oddballs who have some off-the-grid notions about space-time, and what rules should apply when contact is achieved. There is a grade-A baddie in dire need of removal, a harsh landlady, some adorable pooches, and a very sweet young man.

Another bit of fun is the repeated presence of David Bowie references, including an album you have never heard of.

There is some peripheral social commentary as Nick and Bee compare the worlds in which they live, what programs have been enacted, which politicians have gained office, or not, where the world stands with global warming, things of that nature. These offer food for thought, actually more like dessert to go with the main course of the romance.

Time travel romances have made an impressive dent in our overall reading time. The Outlander, and The Time Traveler’s Wife pop immediately to mind. Other stories have been written about people communicating over time, but this is the first use I am aware of that makes use of parallel universes as an impediment to true love. You do not want to look too closely at the explanation for the whole parallel universe thing. Just go with it. suspend your disbelief. In fact, send it off for a long weekend to someplace nice.

Lotz has done an impressive job of delivering LOLs and tears all in the same book. I noted seven specific LOLs in my notes, and I expect there were more that I failed to jot down. On top of that, we can report that copious tears were shed. No count on that one. So Lotz certainly delivers on the feelz front.

Bee and Nick’s relationship may be insanely complicated, but there should be nothing complicated about your decision to check this one out. The Impossible Us is not only very possible, but practically mandatory. This is a super fun read that you should find a way to make happen for you, whether or not you have a tweed suit, a red coat, a rail station with a large clock, or a dodgy internet connection.

Review posted – March 18, 2022

Publication date – March 22, 2022

I received an ARE of The Impossible Us from Ace in return for a fair review in this universe. My much more successful self in that other place will have to handle the review on his side. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the Lotz’s’s personal, FB, Instagram, and GR pages

Sarah Lotz writes under various names. Impossible Us (Impossible in the UK), is her eighth book under that name. Then there are four books written with her daughter, Savannah, as Lily Herne, five with Louis Greenburg as S.L. Grey, three with Helen Moffatt and Paige Nick as Helena S. Paige, and that does not even count screenplays.

Items of Interest
—–Parallel Universes in Fiction
—–MacGuffin
—–Rebecca
—–An Affair to Remember
—–Strangers on a Train

Reminds Me Of
—–Meet Me in Another Life
—–The Midnight Library

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

book cover

While Davey tugged the rope, Munro, still in the grave, helped to guide the body out of the small hole in the coffin and back toward the surface world, a strange reverse birth for a body past death. Munro successfully removed the body’s shoes off as it left its coffin, but it was up to Davey to strip off the rest of its clothes and throw them back in the grave. Stealing a body was against the law, but if they actually took any property from the grave, that would make it a felony.

It’s the lesson young girls everywhere were taught their entire lives—don’t be seduced by the men you meet, protect your virtue—until, of course, their entire lives depended on, seduction by the right man. It was an impossible situation, a trick of society as a whole: force women to live at the mercy of whichever man wants them but shame them for anything they might do to get a man to want them. Passivity was the ultimate virtue…Be patient, be silent, be beautiful and untouched as an orchid, and then and only then will your reward come: a bell jar to keep you safe.

Ok, so I screwed up. First off, I thought the pub date was 2/22/22 and scheduled my reading and review accordingly. Uh, sorry. Actual pub date was 1/18/22, so I am coming at this one a bit late. Second, I did not do a very thorough job of reading about the book when it was offered. I somehow managed to overlook the fact that it is a YA novel. I have nothing against YA novels. Some of my favorite books are YA novels, but I usually pass on YA books these days unless there is a compelling reason to take them on. Had I seen that it was a YA, I would probably have skipped this one. Finally, yet another failing on my part. I somehow managed to overlook the romance element in the promotional copy. Again, I have nothing against romance elements in books which are mostly of another sort. Quite enjoy them when they are well done. But did not have my expectations primed for the presence of quite as much as there is here, which is not to say that it is huge. It is not. So, multiple failings, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The product of impatience. Won’t happen again. I know the drill, Three Hail Marys and a couple of Our Fathers. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest ands offered fair warning…on to the book itself.

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Dana Schwartz – image from her site

Hazel Sinnett is seventeen. She has always lived in a castle an hour outside Edinburgh. It is 1817. She very much wants to study medicine, has read all the books in the family library on the subject, but lacks actual school-based tuition and hands-on experience. When the grandson of a famous doctor is in town to deliver a lecture, she finds a way to attend. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, people of her sort were not welcome. Still, she finds a way, with some help, and when the doctor announces he will be offering an anatomy class she is desperate to attend.

Medicine is making some advances but the study of the human body requires actual human bodies, preferably lately late. Executions not providing sufficient resources to fill the need, a profession has arisen to satisfy that demand, resurrectionists, who, for a fee, relieve nearby graves of their residents, and deliver same to their clients with the utmost of discretion. Jack Currer, also seventeen, counts that among his several jobs. He happens to be hanging about near the Anatomists’ Society when Hazel is locked out. Meet Cute as Jack shows this clearly well-to-do young lady a secret way in. Think these two might just cross paths again? Of course, there are impediments.

Hazel is not in line to inherit anything, regardless of her parents’ wealth, bypassed in favor of the male heir. The female thing again. The usual way for a young lady from a god family to secure a future is to secure a husband of means. As it happens, she has a first cousin living not too far away, Bernard. They have known reach other forever, played together since early childhood, and it has been presumed that it was only a matter of time before Bernard would propose. He is not a bad sort, but rather dull and a bit too concerned with his appearance. Hazel recognizes that there are problems with her being allowed to make her own way in the world, so more or less anesthetizes herself to the likelihood that Bernard is her likeliest way out of a life of penury. God knows that is what her mother keeps telling her, and telling her, and telling her.

She manages to attend some of Doctor Beecham’s lectures, and is the star pupil, but the female thing again. Guys, catch up, C’Mon! Beecham at least recognizes her intelligence and they come to an agreement. If she can pass the medical exam at the end of the term, she will be able to get real medical training. Unfortunately, there’s that hands-on thing. Books alone will simply not do. But wait! It just so happens she has made the acquaintance of someone who might be able to help her out, and a beautiful friendship blossoms.

I really thought I was going to go be a doctor,” Dana Schwartz says about her time as a pre-med student in college. “Then I had this panicked moment of realizing I was so fundamentally unhappy. My dream was always to be a writer, but I never thought I could make a living that way.” – from the Forbes interview

But it is not all raw sexism and Hallmark moments. There are dark doings in Edinburgh. A plague has struck, a return of the so-called “Roman fever” which had killed over five thousand the last time it hit, two years before. It had even killed Hazel’s beloved brother, George. She had caught it as well, but managed to survive. Is it really Roman
Fever that is boosting the mortality rate? Jack is aware of far too many acquaintances vanishing, and there are strange doings in the local graveyards as a trio of heavies are haunting such areas, terrorizing the poor resurrection men. Then Hazel begins to see some very strange medical problems when she starts getting to study specimens obtained by Jack, and treating some locals. There is also something decidedly off about Doctor Beecham, who never seems to remove his dark gloves, and demonstrates a mind-numbing drug as a road to pain-free surgery. Then there is Doctor Straine, one eye, nasty skin and a worse attitude, a surgeon working with Doctor Beecham. Seems like a nogoodnik from the build-a-creep shop.

It was the gothic elements that had drawn me to the story. And they are indeed present. But Schwartz has had some fun with them. (For the following I used some of a list from Elif Notes.) Usually gothic novels feature a Desolate, haunted Setting, typically a very creepy castle or equivalent. Here, Hazel lives in a castle, which is a pretty benign home for her. Other sites must serve this purpose. Graveyards work, and certainly provide some chills, and any place where human bodies are being cut up, for purposes educational or malign, will also serve, so, check. Dark and Mysterious Atmosphere? You betcha, plenty of suspect characters and unexplained deaths and disappearances. Something supernatural? Well, I do not want to give anything away, so will say only that there is an element here that qualifies the story as fantasy. Emotional Extremes? Fuh shoo-uh. Although the emotional extremes are as much about Hazel’s lot in life as they are about the actual life-and-death shenanigans that are going on. Women as Victims – absolutely, but in the wider, sexism-conscious sense as well as in the way of a damsels being put upon by dastardly males. Curses and Portents – not so much, except what we all might wish upon some of the baddies. Visions and Nightmares – Hazel has some of the latter, but nothing mystical about them, just recollections of horrors she had seen in real life. Frightening Tone – most definitely. There is clearly something sinister going on in Edinburgh. Frightening Weather – not really. There is a fun early bit in which we are waiting for an incoming storm to deliver some life-generating lightning, but mostly, weather is not that big a deal here. Religious Concerns – social mores are more the thing in this one. Good versus Evil – there is some serious evil going on here. And Hazel is definitely a force for good. A Touch of Romance – yes. Well, more than a touch. Hey, Laddy, you’d better keep those hands to yersel ef ya wan ter keep ‘em on the ends uh yer arms.”

There is Romance and then there is Love. The title even highlights it, Anatomy: A Love Story. There is clearly some romance going on here. Hazel and Jack give off sparks which brings their obvious connection to life. But Hazel’s true love may be more the passion she has for learning, for science, for medicine, for anatomy, for surgery. If she were really faced with a choice between being a doctor or being with Jack, and the two were exclusive, are you confident what choice she would make? Is it possible to have your cake and dissect it too? Not so easy in 1817 Scotland.

The real horrors here are the treatment of women as a subordinate level of human and the joys of the class system in early 19th Century Scotland. Even coming from a family of means, Hazel is refused entry into a profession for which she has passion, and a clear capability, simply because of her gender. She must endure belittling by men, in power and not, who are her intellectual and moral inferiors, as she struggles to find a way forward. Contemplating her life options, Hazel sees her future as a life under a bell jar, whatever that may be referring to. The experience of being poor in the Georgian era is shown not only in the life of Jack, but in the ways the poor and working class are held in their place no less than if they were confined to a castle dungeon, and in the depraved indifference the wealthy show to the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

“The main mystery I wanted to pick at and unravel is who gets forgotten in society and for what purpose,” Schwartz says. “Obviously today, there is a huge wealth gap that continues to grow, but in the 1800s, the aristocracy made that wealth gap explicit. There was a social and cultural line, so I wanted to explore in a way that doesn’t necessarily label the characters as heroes or villains.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

There are some comedic elements, one of which focuses on a man-eater and is hilarious. There a lovely bit of a secondary romantic sub plot, and some fun references. Hazel is all excited to hear about a lecture/demonstration put on by someone named Galvini. This is a clear reference to the actual Luigi Galvani who was putting on shows in which dead things were animated with electricity from a battery. He provided some of the inspiration for a young writer of that era. The epigraph of the novel is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose creation has near universal familiarity. A mention of Mary Wollstonecraft, her mom, serves double duty as a reference to a leading light for women’s rights in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and as a reminder that the novel deals with matters of life and death, and maybe life again. Hazel’s younger brother is named Percy, which again reminds one of Mary Shelley. A recollection of Walter Scott reciting his Lady of the Lake epic at her Uncle and Aunt’s house is also reminiscent of the Wollstonecraft/Godwin household, in which Coleridge read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So, there are many Frankensteinian parts gathered together to help animate the story.

Some parts did not quite fit, however. It was sooo convenient that her father was away on a prolonged naval mission, and that Mum decides to head out of town for an extended period with her other, much more valuable, male child, Hazel’s younger brother. So, Risky Business time for the entire season at Hawthornden Castle. (Although maybe Summer at Bernie’s might be a bit closer, given the issues with dead people.) AND, really? none of the staff rats Hazel out to her mother, the one paying their salary, for running a clinic at the family residence? Maybe we should consider this part of the fantasy element. Re my intro, I was not much excited by the squishy romance bits, but I already told you about that. No biggie, ultimately. It is mostly adorable.

Dana Schwartz has written a strong, literary, YA novel that offers some chills, an historical look at a place and time, and a look at the challenges faced by the poor and by those of the female persuasion, when it was still the rule to treat women as servants, eye candy, or brood mares. It shows a powerful approach and makes me eager to see what she comes up with when she writes a full-on adult novel, but that may not be next up on her board.

…right now, I have an idea for a sequel that I really want to tell and I think will be really fun. I thought this was going to be a one-off, but when I reached the ending, and I sat with that for a few months, I thought that there’s something else here.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

Review posted – February 11, 2022

Publication date – January 18, 2022

I received an ARE of Anatomy: A Love Story from Wednesday Books in return for a fair review and some help dealing with an uncomfortable neck growth. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Schwartz came to public notice when she was still in the employ of the New York Observer and Tweeted a criticism of Donald Trump for using anti-Semitic imagery in an anti-Hillary ad. She got viciously trolled by his minions, and wanted to write about that experience. Her boss gave her a green light, but did not really proof the piece, an open letter, which called out Jared Kushner, who owned The Observer, for not interceding with his father-in-law to prevent such things. As an undergrad, she established the “GuyInYourMFA” and “Dystopian YA” parody Twitter profiles. She had internships with Conan and Colbert, and was later was a staff writer for Disney’s She-Hulk, then created and hosted the Noble Blood podcast. Anatomy is her fourth book.

Interviews
—–Time Magazine – Dana Schwartz Wrote the YA Romance She Always Wanted to Read by Simmone Shah
—–Bustle – How My Chemical Romance Inspired Dana Schwartz’s Latest Novel – By Samantha Leach
—–Forbes – 26-Year-Old Dana Schwartz Doesn’t Need To Stick To A Genre by Rosa Escandon
—–San Diego Union Tribune – Dana Schwartz gets skin deep in ‘Anatomy: A Love Story’ by Seth Combs
—–Barnes & Noble – Poured Over: Dana Schwartz on Anatomy by BN Editors

Items of Interest from the author
—–Discussion Questions

Items of Interest
—–Edith Wharton – Roman fever – a short story
—–This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.
—–A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?
—–Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg
—–3/17/18 – MIT Press has produced an annotated version (Print and on-Line) of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It is intended for use by STEM students, raising scientific and ethical questions from the original work. The comments are joined from diverse sources, particularly in the on-line version, with some by scientists, and some by students. The print version sticks to annotation articles by professionals. A fun way to approach this book if you have not yet had the pleasure, or a nice pathway back if you are returning for a visit. It is called, appropriately, Frankenbook. You can find the digital version here
—–NY Times – Reporter Calls Out Publisher (Donald Trump’s Son-in-Law) Over Anti-Semitism By Jonathan Mahler
—–My review of The Lady and her Monsters – This is a must-read book for anyone interested in Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Thriller, Thriller, YA and kids

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

book cover

It wasn’t the desolation or the darkness or even the climate that had persuaded him to invest in this trip. It was that name…Official maps referred to it as R504. It wasn’t much of a road. The pavement started at both ends but not long thereafter the pavement gave way to packed gravel…In many places, the road was barely wide enough for two cars to scrape the paint off each other as they passed. The landscape consisted of snow, skeletal trees, mountains, and the occasional guardrail, as well as settlements that were considered urban but many of which were made up of a few dozen buildings and the hardy souls who went along with them.

It seemed like these people lived in a haunted, frozen hell.
To them . . . it was just home.

The Russians have a thing for giving characters in novels, and, it appears, real-world things, multiple names. R504, for example, is also known as P504. (no idea, don’t ask). It is also known as Federal Highway R504 and The Kolyma Highway. Locals call it The Kolyma Route. Plenty? Da. Complete? Nyet. It is also known as The Road of Bones. Construction began in 1932, during the Stalin era, using labor camp inmates. It continued using gulag prisoners until 1953. Workers die during construction? Permafrost in Siberia makes digging holes problematic, so the bodies were laid to rest under and near the road. Just a few, only somewhere between 250,000 to one million. Any chance a mother lode like that might attract a ghost hunter?

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Christopher Golden – image from The Tufts Daily – photo by Shivohn Kacy Fleming

Not all the dead along the road were planted there due to construction. There are probably a million ways to die on the Road of Bones in winter. Run out of gas? You die. Flat tire? You die. Accident? You die. Vehicle breaks down for any reason? You die. Don’t go outside wearing glasses. They will get frozen to your face. Have a medical emergency that cannot wait three hours until you can get to the nearest ER? You die. And guys, don’t even think about stopping by the side of the road to pee. Bring a diaper or a container of some sort. Sounds fun. When are we leaving? (I love writing stories set in places where people shouldn’t live. Like WHY DO YOU LIVE THERE? – from the Dead Headspace interview)

Felix Teigland is a maker of documentaries. He has had some ups and downs in his career. He managed to build his own production company but he is still waiting for the breakout show that will keep him and his company above water for more than just now. He is a charmer and professional bullshitter, who means well, and has a rich imagination, producing a lot of interesting ideas, but far too often he is unable to make good on his promises. Felix needs a hit. But he needs a backer to fund it. Thus, his presence in this godforsaken land. He wants to take enough video, get enough of a story that he can persuade those with deep enough pockets to reach into them and toss enough rubles his way so that he can actually produce the project.

Teig was a fast talker, always with a scheme he would trumpet with unfettered enthusiasm—a feature documentary from a fourteen-year-old director out of Argentina, salvage rights to a Spanish galleon, a TV series about World War II comic book artists who were secretly spies, a mock-umentary in which the history of Scooby-Doo and his gang would be investigated as if they’d existed in real life.

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Here the broken landscape of Stalin’s Kolyma Highway is pictured. Without a rail link to the city, the highway remains the only major land route into & out of Yakutsk… – image and text from Weather.com – photo by Amos Chapple

And what a project it is. Life and Death on the Road of Bones. Surely there are ghost stories aplenty, not to mention compelling survival tales. Teig has a background in supernatural work, having labored for several years on a TV show called Ghost Sellers.

He had reason to want to find ghosts, but he’d never seen evidence of one, despite the show confirming twenty-seven “official” hauntings while he’d worked with them.

He is skeptical of such things, has doubts, but even more importantly, hopes. Maybe the ghosts he finds in Siberia will help him find the spirit he truly seeks.

The grieving kid who’d lived inside him for more than twenty years had always longed for proof of the supernatural.
Careful what you wish for, idiot.

Teig is joined in this insane adventure by Jack Prentiss, a bear of an American, complete with a beard that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Yukon, a beer belly, and an imposing frame. Teig owes Prentiss a considerable sum of money, which gives Jack a bit of incentive to help make sure this project succeeds. Prentiss may be Teig’s only friend.

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A view of Stalin’s “Road of Bones”, the route to Oymyakon (Oy-vey-myakon?, is pictured on a -50c evening – image from Weather.com. photo by Amos Chapple

You can probably leave your swimsuit at home. There are only five hours of daylight this time of year, and even when it is above the horizon, it remains hidden behind clouds. Get used to the darkness. The average daily temperature in Winter is -47F.

They begin in the port town of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk, heading to the community of Akhust, the coldest inhabited place on Earth. I did not find an actual Akhust in my Googling, so presume it is a made-up name, standing in for Oymyakon, a twenty hour drive according to Google directions. Teig’s journey is supposedly sixteen hours, so maybe it is somewhere between the two locations. Guess it depends on extant conditions.

They make a stop to pick up a twenty-something guide, Kaskil, an actual local. He will not be their last passenger. There is a lovely lady in distress, Nari, with “cherry black hair.” Vehicle broke down and she needs a lift. When they arrive in Akhust, the coldest place on Earth, the entire town of several hundred is abandoned. Only one inhabitant remains, Kaskil’s nine-year-old niece, Ariuna, in a catatonic state. Shock most likely.

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Oymyakon, Sakah Republic, Russia Avg. temperature of 3 coldest months: -47.0 F Coldest month: January (-53.3 F) – image from USA Today – photo by Zac Allan / Wikimedia Commons

And then there are the odd things they have been seeing in the woods as they drove along. Trees moving strangely, oversized beasts, of uncertain shape, a Siberian tiger, of very certain shape, among them. Teig has odd thoughts urging him to give in to the cold. Whatever had driven or lured the residents of Akhust from their homes was now coming for them. And the chase is on, an army of creatures, led by a very large, human-like shaman is in hot pursuit. But why? Check, please.

The story is told through alternating POVs, not including everyone, but more than a couple. This kept things fresh, while also giving us the characters’ backstories, and reasons to care about their fates, maybe some understanding of their motivations. The action is pretty much non-stop. It is not a long book, but you might be out of breath by the time you finish reading. Lots of peril, lots of fleeing, a fair bit of fighting back. And questions. Um…why? I understand that the victims of Stalin might be pissed, but at people with no role in their killing? Are the members of this spirit army Stalin’s reincarnated roadkill? There is a character Kaskil refers to as ghost he has actually seen, who prays over the frozen dead. Does she have a role in this? The animal-like nature of the pursuers suggests also a rebellion of the natural world against a feckless humanity. Wrong place, wrong time. Who are those guys? Or is it something else? So what is the deal? Why are these spirits-made-material so intent on catching our small company?

Gripes are minimal. While there were multiple POVs, they did not all succeed in generating much interest in the characters. One character’s deep religious feelings define a life in an interesting and unusual way. Teig’s tale is given the most ink, and creates the strongest bond. The others? Some.

This is a chilling, acti0n-filled horror story, and it succeeds very much at that level. There is a lot of creativity on display in portraying these dark forces. And enough nuance to make them less than one hundred percent evil. Sound, in particular, plays a role here, not just in the songs noted in the text, but in the way sound can get into your head.

I’m…always intrigued with the idea of turning the concept of monstrosity on its head, of looking at a conflict through the eyes of the character that we would normally presume to be evil or cruel. – from the Nightmare Magazine interview

You will want to dress warmly while reading this one. You may shudder along with the characters at the death-dealing cold they must face for the entirety of the tale, and add a quiver or three for the spirits on the warpath. Consider having at hand either a mug of something very warm to drink or a bottle of Stoli. A favorite pet on your lap might help as well, at least as long as they do not start to look at you funny.

Here in this little scattering of human structures they could still convince themselves they were in the world of people, but once they passed into the woods, it would have been impossible to pretend they had control or authority over anything. Hunters and herders went into those woods or up that mountain from Akhust, and when they did they were surrendering to the primal nature of the world. Akhust stood as a stark reminder of how small a thing it was to be a human being.

Review posted – January 21, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

I received an ARE of Road of Bones from St. Martins in return for a fair review and some extra warm mittens. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Golden is a monster of an author who got started, and found success, very early. He has a gazillion publications to his credit, an encyclopedic host of teleplay credits from his years writing for Buffy with Joss Whedon, and plenty more. And then there are the comics. You may have heard of Hell Boy, among those. Here is a list of what he has published, from Fiction DB. I personally think he has elves, or more likely, goblins chained to computers in his basement helping him crank out such volume.

Interviews
—–Nightmare Magazine – Interview: Christopher Golden by Lisa Morton – January 2014 issue
—–Dead Headspace – Ep. 126 – Christopher Golden – video – 1:51:56 – this is a long, fun interview that covers a wide range of subjects. The part dealing specifically with The Road of Bones goes from about 1:20:00 to about 1:29:00

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the Kolyma Highway. Yes, it is a real thing
—–Weather.com – Breathtaking Photos of the Coldest City in the World by Nicole Bonaccorso – March 25, 2021

Songs/Music
—–Prince – Purple Rain – chapter 8
—–Bruce Springstein – Drive All Night – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Western Heroes – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Rosalita – chapter 14
—–Bruce – Somewhere North of Nashville – chapter 15
—–Elmira Terkulova – Million Scarlet Roses – English version – chapter 8
—–Alla Pugacheva –Million Roses – Russian version – chapter 8

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