Category Archives: Thriller

Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

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

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

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

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Megan Goldin – image from the Sydney Morning Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review posted – August 19, 2022

Publication date – August 9, 2022

I received an eARE of Stay Awake from St. Martin’s Press in return for something, but I just cannot remember what. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upgrade by Blake Crouch

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My mother had tried to edit a few rice paddies and ended up killing two hundred million people. What havoc could she wreak—intentionally or through unintended consequences—by attempting to change something as fundamental as how Homo sapiens think?

We were a bunch of primates who had gotten together and, against all odds, built a wondrous civilization. But paradoxically—tragically—our creation’s complexity had now far outstripped our brains’ ability to manage it.

OK, so if you had the chance to upgrade yourself, would you do it? I know I would. There are so many things about me that could be better. But, as we all know from the constant barrage of upgrades offered by the makers of every bloody piece of software, some have downsides. Such as new, bloated code slowing down your app. A feature you liked has been removed. You now have to endure ads. Are the benefits of greater value than the costs? Sometimes, but usually, we won’t actually know until the new version is installed, which can take anywhere from minutes to “really, this fu#%ing thing is still processing?” Sometimes, you have no choice, the app updates whether you want it to or not.

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Blake Crouch – image from his site

I suppose agent Logan Ramsay could tell us something about that last case. On a raid, he walks into a planned trap, which goes boom, and Ramsay is infused with version 1.0 of something, which gets busy rewriting his internal code to produce version 2.0 of Logan. There are upsides and downsides. This is no steroidal enhancement, trading zits and rage for increased muscle mass. A nifty bit of tech called a gene driver, (can’t help but see a tiny Uber with double-helix treads) is busy re-writing his actual DNA. (For a new you, no really, a totally, completely new you, call…1 800 FIX-THIS. Of course, we have a la carte if there are only some minor changes you would like. Operators are standing by.)

Logan already had a complicated life. Mom was a geneticist trying to improve crop yields in China when there was a slight bit of collateral damage. Her altered-DNA material went where it was not supposed to. Oopsy. It was known as The Great Starvation. As noted in the quote at top, over two hundred million dead. Junior, who had been working with Mom, dead in the ensuing mess, wound up taking undeserved legal heat in her place, spent time in prison, but was sprung three years in. Now he works as an agent for the federal GPA, or Gene Protection Agency, (too late for Wilder) fiddling with genetic code having become a serious, felonious no-no, and Junior wanting to make amends for his family’s role in the global debacle. He is a geneticist like Mom, now dedicated to seeing that it never happens again.

So, what happens in every single film and book in which our hero is altered by some weird outside force? They are dragged into enforced isolation for relentless study. Or base their subsequent actions (FLEE!!!) on the presumption that this is what the powers that be have planned for them.

Of course among the changes that have been implanted into Logan is a significant increase in IQ. His perceptions have been enhanced as well, giving him a wider bandwidth for incoming sensory information and a much improved ability to process that new flow.

This is both a chase and a pursuit story, as Logan must stay out of the clutches of the government, while searching for a dangerous geneticist, trying to stave off another potential global disaster. His personal upgrades make both running and chasing less of a challenge for him than it might be for an unaugmented person.

Crouch offers a steady, if light, sprinkling of tech changes, letting us know we are in the future, if not necessarily the far distant future. Some seem more distant than others. Hyperloop, for example, is a widespread viable transportation mode. There is a mile-high building in Las Vegas.

The book is set slightly in the future, because I wanted to accelerate where some of the climate change and more in-the-weeds technology was heading, but it’s a mirror of where we might be five minutes from now. – Time interview

Some of the alignments seemed out of kilter. The story takes place in the 2060s. But delivery drones and driverless taxis hardly seem much of an advance for forty years. Ditto electric cars with greater range. Mention is made of a Google Roadster. Google producing its own car has been a project in the works since 2009. So, maybe only five minutes into the future for a lot of the tech Crouch employs. The five-minutes vs forty-years lookahead was jarringly inconsistent at times, which pulled me out of the story.

He also reminds us, with a steady stream of examples, that the underlying issue is humans having screwed up the Earth to the point where the continued viability of Homo Sap is called into question. Lower Manhattan and most of Miami are under water. Glacier National Park no longer features glaciers. Many wildlife species are only memories. It is raining in the Rockies instead of snowing. There are now seven hurricane categories.

There are some things about this book that I would change. There is an escape scene in which I found the means of egress a bit far-fetched, given the year in which it takes place. Surely there is better tech available? I kept wondering who got Logan sprung from prison. If it was revealed, I missed it. I wondered, during a flight from hostile forces, at how little pursuit of the runner there was by the pursuing forces. Really? That easy to get away? I don’t think so. A couple of lost family members merited a bit more attention. And there is a decided absence of humor.

Expected questions are raised. Things like what is it that makes us human? There are those who believe that enhancing, upgrading humanity’s intelligence-related genes to stave off the potential extinction of our species is the only solution, regardless of what collateral damage that might entail. If we are smarter, goes the theory, we will see that what we are doing is madness, and find more sustainable ways of living. While that notion is appealing, it seems pretty glaring that an intelligence boost alone will not cut it. I mean, so you make people smarter. What could possibly go wrong? Logan addresses this:

What if you create a bunch of people who are just drastically better at what they already were. Soldiers. Criminals. Politicians. Capitalists?

The notion has been done a fair bit. Forbidden Planet is the classic of this sort. That most of the genetic manipulators in this tale ignore this suggests that maybe they were not so smart as they thought they were, enhanced or not.

Might it enhance one’s appreciation of Upgrade if one had read his prior sci-fi thrillers? No idea. Have not read them. Cannot say. My unaugmented research capacities tell me, though, that this is a stand-alone, so at least there is no direct story or character connection to his prior work.

Upgrade is a fast-paced thriller that keeps the action charging ahead. I often found myself continuing to read beyond where I had planned to stop. Logan is a decent guy who struggles with moral decisions in a very believable way. There are reasons to relate to him as an everyman, regardless of who his mother may have been. Crouch offers character depth enough for this genre. The tech never gets extreme, a beautiful thing. The concerns raised are very serious. Hopefully, it will boost, if not your muscle mass and speed in the forty, your interest level in the world of genetic manipulation, which, albeit with the best of intentions, could wind up degrading us all.

TIME: You did a ton of research on gene editing for Upgrade. Was there anything you learned that stood out?
Blake Crouch: The big thing I came away with is how afraid scientists are of this research and this technology. I didn’t realize how unnerved everyone was about both the optimistic potential of this technology—but also the pitfalls that await us.

Review posted – August 5, 2022

Publication date – July 19, 2022

I received an ARE of Upgrade from Penguin Random House in return for a fair review, and not trying to change too much. Thanks, KQ, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From the book
BLAKE CROUCH is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. His novels include Upgrade, Recursion, Dark Matter, and the Wayward Pines trilogy, which was adapted into a television series for FOX. Crouch also co-created the TNT show Good Behavior, based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He lives in Colorado.

Interviews
—–Time – Blake Crouch No Longer Believes in Science Fiction – by Anabel Gutterman
—–Paulsemel.com – Exclusive Interview: “Upgrade” Author Blake Crouch

Songs/Music
—–“Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood – Noted in chapter 6 as Logan’s favorite tune – if he says so
—–Bowie – Changes – a live version from 1999 – just because
—– Yamer Yapchulay – playing a violin cover of Tonight from West Side Story – one was played in Chapter 15
—–Kyla – I Am Changing – you can thank me later

Items of Interest
—–Carson National Forest – a hideout
—–Quantum annealing computing – mentioned in chapter 7
—–LifeCode is mentioned in chapter 9

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fiction, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, 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

————————————————–

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

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

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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

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

book cover
1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

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

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

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

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

Beacon Hell – The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

book cover

He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover, with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

He Lied, She Lied – Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney

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We’ve tried date nights, and marriage counseling, but spending more time together isn’t always the same as spending less time apart. You can’t get this close to a cliff edge without seeing the rocks at the bottom, and even if my husband doesn’t know the full story, he knows that this weekend is a last attempt to mend what got broken.
What he doesn’t know, is that if things don’t go according to plan, only one of us will be going home.

Nothing like having a positive attitude when you’re trying to salvage a troubled marriage.

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Alice Feeney – image from BBC

I reached a significant benchmark in my marriage while reading this book, a twentieth (china) wedding anniversary. It was the second time, for me. (I am nothing if not tenacious.) So, I appreciate the marital issues that arise in this wonderful thriller. (Sorry, no thriller material in either of my marriages, well, none that I will admit to in court. And no, my wife and I have no weekends planned for some remote snowy locale.) Adam and Amelia are trying to save theirs. (marriage, not thriller). A winter weekend away to a remote part of Scotland. Do or die. He is a successful screenwriter. She works at the Battersea Dogs Home. (Does that make Adam a rescue?)

We’re both pretty good at keeping up appearances and I find people see what they want to see. But behind closed doors, things have been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long time.

All right, this is getting way too close for comfort. (see first marriage noted above) The mutual discomfort in their marriage is clear, to the reader, anyway, but there are mitigating circumstances.

Adam has a neurological glitch called prosopagnosia, which means he cannot see distinguishing features on faces, including his own.

Face blindness makes it tough to deal in a very social world, if one cannot differentiate friend from foe, or lover from casual acquaintance. But, as is the case for many people with unusual qualities, he has learned to compensate. The sound of a voice, a personal scent, individual physical movements. Enough so that he found someone willing, eager even, to marry him.

Adam’s great personal screenplay is Rock Paper Scissors. It won him early acclaim (at 21) but never got made, despite repeated attempts. Now, he adapts novels by other writers, and is good at it, makes a nice living. The Rock Paper Scissors motif repeats from time to time. The notion of the story is incorporated into the structure of the novel. The game is played, sometimes with very serious stakes.

Blackwater Chapel is remote, in the Scottish Highlands (zero bars), quite beautiful landscape thereabouts, on Blackwater Loch. It is indeed a renovated place of worship. The power is not the most reliable, particularly in dire weather. Amelia had won the weekend away in a contest at work. It may not be the best of all possible times for such a visit, an eight-hour drive from London, Amelia doing ALL the driving in her Morris Minor. A tin-can antique on four wheels, is what Adam calls it. While they are there, a huge winter storm seals them in. Travel would be far too risky in the old car. They are quite effectively isolated.

Isolated, yes, but, well, maybe not entirely alone. A supposed housekeeper leaves a few notes for them. Maybe she is the person living in the only other structure within miles, a thatched cottage. There is a flock of local sheep to offer some light scares and barriers. And, of course there is Bob, their giant black lab. (Asked in an interview which of her characters she would choose if she was about to be stranded on a deserted island, Feeney did not hesitate. Bob, she said. Maybe that is because Bob, the author’s creation, so much resembles her real-life black lab, down to their mutual fear of feathers.) But is that it? There have been rumors of odd doings at the chapel, with unseen things calling the name of the more corporeal sorts who show up on the premises. And doors have an odd way of becoming locked or unlocked. There is plenty more of this sort. Mysterious sounds. Evocative scratches on walls. It is definitely a spooky joint. Enjoy!

Feeney offers us plenty of atmospherics.

Adam was right, there are no ghosts or gargoyles, but the place definitely feels spooky. Everything is made of ancient-looking stone—the walls, the ceiling, the floor—and it’s so cold down here that I can see my breath. I count three rusted metal rings embedded in the wall, and do my best not to think about what they were used for.

A basement crypt, reached via trapdoor, has been converted to a wine cellar. Is vino the only spirit down there?

The light from the old-fashioned candlestick holder he is carrying casts ghostly shadows around the bedroom, so that now I feel like I’m in a Charles Dickens novel.

Much of the inspiration for the book derived from a visit Feeney made in 2018, to a creepy renovated chapel in Scotland, a visit that featured a “Beast from the East” snowstorm, and a mysterious face in a window. Some other personal items made it into the book. Feeney does her writing in a garden shed, a characteristic she bestowed on Adam. There was a discomfiting wardrobe in Feeney’s real-world chapel. She imagined secret stairs from there, which became the basement wine-cellar/crypt, accessible only via a trap door.

The book is told from alternating POVs, Adam’s and Amelia’s. It is from these that we know their marriage is in trouble. But wait, there’s more! A third character (fourth if you count Bob) is introduced about a quarter the way in, Robin, residing near the chapel. She is up to something. It seems that there is certainly madness there, but is there a method to match? Finally, there are wifely letters written on the annual wedding anniversary, but never given to Adam. These let us follow the history of his marriage through his wife’s eyes. They are introduced by a “word of the year” that sets the tone for the chapters to come. They also note the category of gift that is considered traditional for each year. (A partial list is in EXTRA STUFF) In each of these entries the gift, at least the sort of gift, is significant in the ensuing narrative.

There is a layer-by-layer unveiling of secrets, from both of them, which gives us a better look at who they truly are. (More of a He-Lied-She-Lied than the more traditional His-v-Hers perspectives.) Well, from all three, if we add Robin. Lots of excellent, very hairpin turn stuff. (Keep both hands on the wheel at all times) Maybe not as dangerous as riding the Do-Dodonpa, but wearing a neck-brace might not be a bad idea while reading towards the end. You may hear yourself utter more than a few “wait, what?s” There are some twists at the finale that seem inter-dimensional in their impact.

So, who is out to get whom? Is anyone, really? Are they both there to salvage their marriage or torpedo it? And what is making all the strangeness at the chapel happen? Is it really haunted? Will they both make it out alive? Will anyone? Will Adam’s screenplay ever get produced?

I do not really have any gripes with the book. It maybe asks us to suspend a bit too much disbelief, no biggie. But I take serious issue with the marketing, which I believe to be dishonest. I will not say what it is about this that is not true, or is unfairly misleading, but after you read the book, I urge you to take a close look at this. You will see for yourself. Having an unreliable narrator is one thing, but this seems a step too far to me. The ff is from Macmillan’s page for the book.

Things have been wrong with Mr and Mrs Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife. 

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts–paper, cotton, pottery, tin–and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

Rock Paper Scissors is a delight of a read. Feeney does an excellent job of inserting hooks at chapter ends to make sure it is a challenge for you to either get up and do things that need doing, or turn off the light and go to sleep.

It seems like it would be a good idea to dress warmly when you read this. The cold of the Feeney’s fictional world might give you a chill. A hot toddy might be an appropriate accompanying refreshment, or maybe some Scotch whiskey. And make sure that neck brace is firmly in place when you are entering your final chunk of reading time. You will need it.

The first match I strike goes out almost instantly—it’s an old box.
I use the second to try and get my bearings, but I still can’t see the steps, and I’m struggling to get enough air into my lungs.
The third match I strike briefly illuminates part of the wall, and I notice all the scratch marks on the surface. It looks like someone, or something, once tried to claw their way out of here.
I try to stay calm, remember to breathe, but then the flame burns the tips of my fingers and I drop the final match on the floor.
Everything is black.
And then I hear it again. My name being whispered. Right behind me.
Amelia. Amelia. Amelia.
My breaths are too shallow, but I can’t control them and I think I’m going to faint. No matter what direction I look in, all I can see is darkness. Then I hear the sound of scratching.

Review posted – September 3, 2021

Publication date – September 7, 2021

I received a free ARC of Rock, Paper, Scissors from Macmillan in an exchange for an honest review, and the keys to my country retreat for a few days.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by. There are many more where this one came from.

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

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

Feeney was a journalist with the BBC for fifteen years, where she worked as a reporter, news editor, arts and entertainment producer, stealing time where she could to get in some original writing. Rock Paper Scissors is her fourth novel. She has been wildly successful.

As per Variety, the producer of The Crown will be transforming Rock Paper Scissors into a Netflix mini-series.

Interviews
—–Washington Independent – Author Q&A – An Interview with Alice Feeney by Adriana Delgado – from 2018 – on her planning and unreliable narrators
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Alice Feeney by Elyse Dinh-McCrillis – from 2017 – short but has some nice backgr0und and personal elements

I work in my garden shed now with my cowriter, a giant black Labrador who is scared of feathers.

—–Mystery and Thriller Mavens – 8/30/2021 – Bestselling Author Alice Feeney Hosted by Sara DiVello – Video – 41:06

Unrelated aside
A scene in an old tower made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Anniversary Gifts – list from Hallmark
• 1st Anniversary: Paper
• 2nd Anniversary: Cotton
• 3rd Anniversary: Leather
• 4th Anniversary: Fruit or Flowers
• 5th Anniversary: Wood
• 6th Anniversary: Candy or Iron
• 7th Anniversary: Wool or Copper
• 8th Anniversary: Pottery or Bronze
• 9th Anniversary: Willow or Pottery
• 10th Anniversary: Tin or Aluminum
• 11th Anniversary: Steel
• 12th Anniversary: Silk or Linen
• 13th Anniversary: Lace
• 14th Anniversary: Gold Jewelry
• 15th Anniversary: Crystal
• 16th Anniversary: Coffee or Tea
• 17th Anniversary: Wine or Spirits
• 18th Anniversary: Appliances
• 19th Anniversary: Jade
• 20th Anniversary: China

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Filed under Fiction, Reviews, Thriller

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

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It felt as if a kind of pestilence, a plague, were spreading through the college—like in a Greek myth, the sickness that destroyed Thebes; an invisible airborne poison drifting through the courtyards—and these ancient walls, once a refuge from the outside world, no longer offered any protection.

When Zoe calls her aunt from Cambridge to tell her that her best friend has gone missing, Mariana Andros, a group therapist in London, heads to her alma mater immediately. In no time she has ID’d a likely suspect and proceeds to find out everything she can, hoping, expecting to show that Professor Edward Fosca is a murderer.

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Alex Michaelides – image from The Irish Times – photo by Manuel Vazquez

He certainly seems a likely candidate. A gifted teacher of classics, Fosca (This name derives from the Latin “fuscus”, meaning “gloomy, dark, black, (voice) hoarse, hollow, cavernous, (of thoughts) dark, secret, occult” – uh, oh – from name-doctor.com) has a Svengali-ish charm. He has assembled around him a small cult, female students who dress alike, attend private instruction with him, and who knows what else? They are known as The Maidens. Zoe’s friend, Tara, had been a member. They, under the leadership of Fosca, are into an ancient cult that was particularly focused on the line between life and death.

Mariana couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical—her background in group therapy told her, as a rule, to be suspicious of any group in love with a teacher; those situations rarely ended well.

But, Mariana may not be in the best frame of mind to take this all on. We would expect that a trained psychotherapist would be a good judge of people, but looking at the world from behind the veil of her grief, gives us cause to question her judgements. She is still mourning the loss of her beloved husband, Sebastian, who had drowned a year ago, while they were vacationing on the island of Nexos, a vacation she had pushed him to take. Guilt much?

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Tarquin and Lucretia – image from Wikimedia

Michaelides offers us a list of alternate suspects. Among them are a dodgy university porter, an obsessed patient of Mariana’s, the Maidens themselves, and a young man who seems particularly enamored of Mariana, persists in wooing her, and who claims an ability to foresee things.

Mariana picks up some collateral support, including a former mentor still at the university, and an erstwhile school chum, who is now consulting with the police. He offers her access to investigation intel, over the objections of his superior, DI Sangha, in the seemingly-mandatory dickish cop role.

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Tennyson – image from The Daily Mail

There are some of the elements of a cozy here, the amateur sleuth, with a friend on the force, the violence taking place off-screen, local sources that help one suss out the landscape, and quirky secondary characters. But this one is more a thriller, with sharper teeth. It features an undercurrent of dread well beyond the mystery of a simple whodunit. The violence, even though we get no front seat to it, is biting. No Miss Marple, Mariana is not merely an outside observer, but a participant in this drama. And a potential victim.

I thought a lot about the secretive nature of groups as I was writing – especially within Cambridge. There are groups within groups. I studied group therapy myself, that’s what I specialize in. It all goes back to the classic mysteries that I love, from authors like Agatha Christie: Everything is always set in an enclosed location, like an isolated house, a train, a private island. Cambridge is similar.

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Trinity College – image from The Maidenssociety.com

Tennyson comes in for multiple mentions. Greek mythology figures large and Mariana even finds herself succumbing to a bit of atavistic religiosity at times. The mythology that permeates the novel is a particularly fun element, offering an incentive to crank up the search engine of one’s choice and dig in a bit. You may or may not recall the ups and downs of Demeter and Persephone, but there are some other items from ancient Greek stories that I bet you never heard of. It is always fun to learn these things. Michaelides grew up on Cyprus where, he says, Greek mythology was in the air. The old stories were part of general cultural knowledge, with the old plays being regularly restaged, like how we generate new films of Spiderman or Jane Austen novels here.

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Return of Persephone, by Leighton – image from Holographical Archetypes

Additional spice is provided by seven chapters that offer a psycho-side view of the world, an ongoing battle-royale between the dark side and the fading light. Is this our killer? Michaelides has a background in psychology, specifically group therapy, so writes strongly about both psychopathology, and treatment.

He was a screenwriter for twenty years before his first novel, The Silent Patient, was published to huge success. The lessons he learned from that experience translate into a fast-paced read, strong on visual flair, with excellent atmospherics and tension-building. We can easily engage with our lead. Mariana seems a decent sort. She has suffered a terrible loss, which increases our sympathy for her. It is not hard to root for her to ferret out the killer, and to remain alive.

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Leda and the Swan, date unknown, by Franz Russ the Younger (1844-1906) – image from the site Mara, Marietta

There were a few things that bothered me in the book. How could Seb, who was fit and a good swimmer be drowned by a stormy sea? Surely, he knew his limits. Why would anyone go to dinner at the private rooms of a suspected murderer and not tell anyone where they were going? Most significantly there are two characters involved in a major plot twist at the end. While there were some breadcrumbs established for one of them, it seemed to me that the hints re the other were sorely lacking.

That said, the bottom line is that The Maidens is a fun read, a real page-turner that will get your blood pumping, and offer an opportunity to refresh, or learn for the first time, some fascinating Greek mythology.

Death was no stranger to Mariana; it had been her traveling companion since she was a child—keeping close behind her, hovering just over her shoulder. She sometimes felt she had been cursed as if by some malevolent goddess in a Greek myth, to lose everyone she ever loved.

Review posted – June 25, 2021

Publication date – June 15, 2021

I received an ARE of The Maidens from Celadon in return for an honest review and some small blood sacrifices. Really, there is no need to involve the police.

Thanks, too, to MC for encouraging the gods and goddesses of ARE distribution on my behalf.

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

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

Interviews
—–Good Morning America – video 3:24
—–Entertainment Weekly – Alex Michaelides on the most unsettling elements of The Maidens by Seija Rankin
—–The Irish Times – ‘I asked myself what Agatha Christie would do, and what she hadn’t already done’
—–Barnes and Noble – Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with The Silent Patient Author Alex Michaelides – by Jeff Somers – Obviously mostly focused on Michaelides’ earlier book, but there is material in here that is relevant to this book as well

Items of Interest from the author
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Plot Twists in Fiction
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Movies Adapted from Thrillers

Items of Interest
—– Eleusinian Mysteries and Psychedelic Enlightenment
—–Wiki on Eleusinian Mysteries
—–Greeking.Me – Demeter, the Lady of Eleusis – there is a nice summary in here of Demeter and Persephone’s difficult situation
—–Greek Legends and Myths – Leda and Zeus in Greek Mythology
—–Tennyson’s poem – Mariana

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

book cover

”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

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

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller