Tag Archives: Fiction

My Dirty California by Jason Mosberg

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

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

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

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Jason Mosberg – from his site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – September 23, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Mosberg’s personal and Twitter pages

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

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

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

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Filed under California, Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

The Very Secret Society Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Sangu Mandanna – image from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – September 16, 2022

Publication date – August 23, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from her site

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page

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

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

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

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

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

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Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative

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

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

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Image from from TV Tropes

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

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

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

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Image from Television Heaven

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

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia

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

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

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

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Image from Filo News

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

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

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

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From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix

Review posted – September 9, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Novella

Some of It Was Real by Nan Fischer

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

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

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

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Nan Fischer – image from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – August 26, 2022

Publication date – July 28, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Stay Awake by Megan Goldin

book cover

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

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

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

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Megan Goldin – image from the Sydney Morning Herald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review posted – August 19, 2022

Publication date – August 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upgrade by Blake Crouch

book cover

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

1 Comment

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

Project Namahana by John Teschner

book cover

They talk about shareholder value because they need to call it something. But there’s no accountability, not to shareholders, not to anyone. It’s chance. You can do everything right, but if there’s a drought in India and orders drop ten percent, you’ll be blamed. Unless you can get transferred in time for the blame to hit the next guy. And it goes all the way up. No matter what anyone tells you, or what they believe about themselves, all anyone is trying to do is make sure there will always be a chair for him to sit on when the music stops.”

“To quote Dr. Wilson,” said Professor Higa, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. Can anyone explain?”

Project Namahana is a book about responsibility. Who accepts it. Who ducks it. How it is spread around so thinly that it ceases to have any substance. Are you responsible if you shoot someone? Sure thing, unless they were shooting at you first. Are you responsible if people are killed because of decisions you made? It begins to get tougher. What if you’d known there was potential for harm? It can be difficult to assign personal blame, particularly when decisions are made by a range of people.

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John Teschner – image from The Big Thrill

Jonah Manokalanipo takes his son and two cousins to a nearby dam for a swim. When he returns for them, after a heavy rain, he finds all three dead. What killed them? Jonah has an idea, and raises a huge fuss.

Micah Bernt is a military veteran, a loner mostly, seriously PTSD’d. He uses this to keep people at a distance, for their safety. He is not completely wrong to do so. Bernt is living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, working selling outboard motors, renting a small place from a friendly older couple. He finds their comity off-putting, not wanting to get too attached and maybe expose them to his darker side. There is one. He did not get his screaming meanies from spending too much time in a knitting circle. There is plenty of guilt to go along with his unwelcome memories.

Michael Lindstrom is an exec with the Benevoment corporation, producers of GMO seeds and bespoke pesticides. There is a particularly promising project underway on Kauai that could yield major gains in production. But it is not quite ready for prime time, and the upstairs suits are eager to try something else, a different genetic mix, that would be particularly harsh on non-buyers. Lindstrom has been in charge of the older product line since its inception, and wants the company to hang on with it just a bit longer. But when it is implicated in the deaths of several local boys in the Namahana area of Kauai, Lindstrom is sent from the home office in Minnesota to get things sorted. Of course, there are additional complications as there might just be a connection to the several locals who have gone missing or worse.

From the sociologist Robert Jackall I learned corporate managers make directives as vague as possible, forcing those lower down the chain to make ever more concrete decisions. And from Stanley Milgram, I learned it’s human nature to shift our model of morality when following orders, justifying actions we would never do on their own. – from Teschner’s Tor/Forge article

Bernt’s landlord, Clifton Moniz, is one of these. The circumstances of his death are seriously hinky. Moniz’s widow, Momilani, knowing that Bernt has some military police background, asks him to look into the death for her. And we are off to races.

Chapters flip back and forth, mostly between Bernt’s local travails and Michael Lindstom’s coming of conscience, as he begins to really feel responsibility for what his company might have done, recognizing that many of the relevant, bad decisions that had been made by the company had been his. He engages not only in an investigation of the problem at Namahana, but in considerable soul-searching.

[the] novel was inspired by a NYT Magazine story of structural violence: for decades, as told by Nathaniel Rich, DuPont factories dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia streams, abetted by permissive regulators and a corporate bureaucracy that distributed the action of poisoning other human beings into a chain of indirect decisions carried out by hundreds of employees. – from Teschner’s non-fic piece in the Tor/Forge blog

Both Lindstrom and Bernt are on roads that lead to the same place, literally, as well as figuratively. Micah and Michael (maybe the reason for the similarity in names?) are both in great need of redemption, Michael for his managerial sins, Micah for whatever crimes had gotten him discharged from the military with an honorable discharge but maybe not so honorable a final tour.

There is considerable local color, showing a part of Hawaii that is not on the postcards or tourism brochures. Teschner lived on Kauai for seven years, so, while not a native, he knows a bit about the place. This includes not only elements of the local economy, but the relationships among the residents. There is considerable use of local lingo. I read an EPUB, so do not know if the final version includes a glossary. You might have to do some looking-up, but not at a problematic level.

Literally millions of people visit Hawaii every year, but I venture to say that few will find anything familiar in here except for the landscapes. The tourism industry on Hawaii has been so successful, the unique culture of the island itself is almost completely hidden by the stereotypes and the carefully managed visitor experience. – from the Big Thrill interview

Teschner may have presented us with a purely evil Benevoment ag-biz corporation, but his company exec is much more nuanced. We get that he is a well-meaning sort, who sees his work as helping ease world hunger, even if there might be some collateral damage in getting from place A to place B on that road. Micah Bernt is also a good-hearted soul, even if that soul may have acquired some indelible stains. These internal conflicts give the leads some depth. That said, we do not learn enough about Micah Bernt’s challenges while in the military.

Project Namahana looks at systemic, institutional violence foisted on locals by higher-ups in government, the corporatocracy, or both, looks at how personal responsibility fits into that, and fits his two leads with a need for expiation. It is fast-paced and action-packed, with the requisite twists and turns, and even a complicated love interest for Micah. We get to see both the welcoming aloha tradition and the darker side of a brilliant place. It is a fine first novel, showing some serious talent. I expect that the proper reaction to this book is to say Mahalo.

The newest version was the most effective yet, but the tweak in chemistry had made the volatility worse. Morzipronone wouldn’t stay where it was sprayed: a slight breeze carried it miles. It didn’t matter what they put on the label; no application guidelines could prevent drift onto neighboring fields. Any crop that wasn’t genetically modified to resist it would cup and die after just a few exposures.

Review posted – July 22, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

I received an eARE of Project Namahana from Tor/Forge of Macmillan in return for a fair review, and some of that wonderful Kona coffee. 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, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile – from the Big Thrill interview

John Teschner was born in Rhode Island and grew up in southern Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, professional mover, teacher, and nonprofit grant writer. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and rode a bike across the United States. He spent seven years living on the island of Kaua’i with his wife and two boys, where he helped lead Hui O Mana Ka Pu’uwai outrigger canoe club and became a competitive canoe racer. He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he is learning how to stay upright on cross-country skis. PROJECT NAMAHANA is his first novel.

Interview
—–The Big Thrill – Project Namahana by John Teschner

Items of Interest from the author
—– The Non-Fiction Pieces That Inspired Project Namahana by John Teschner
—–Tor/Forge – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter

book cover

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story.Angel of Rome

First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.Famous Actor

You know that guy in the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, the Thuggee priest Mola Ram? Questionable taste in haberdashery, but possessed of a special power. He could reach his hand directly into a person’s torso, secure a grip on the heart, and rip it directly out of the body, not a procedure certified by the AMA. While I expect Jess Walter has better taste in hats, he is possessed of a similar power. Of course, when he rips out your heart, you won’t, unlike Mola Ram’s victims, actually die. You will get your heart back. But you will feel deeply, sometimes painfully, and the experience will stay with you.

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The author? No. Heartbreaker Mola Ram doing his thing in The Temple of Doom – but clearly a relation – image from Swarajya

It has been nine years since Jess Walter’s last short story collection, We Live in Water, but he has continued to write them, publishing in a variety of journals and other outlets. When it was time, he looked through the fifty or so he had written since his last collection and managed to cull that down to a dozen, well, fourteen, but his editor made him cut two more. (Boooo! So mean of her!)

like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.> – from the Spokesman Review print interview

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Jess Walter – benign twin of Mola Ram? – image from The Spokesman-Review – shot by Colin Mulvany

Just for the record, Jess Walter is one of the best writers working today, and this collection is a fine representation of a master at the pinnacle of his power. His work is engaging, powerful, moving, literary, and often LOL-funny.

There are several motifs that repeat through multiple stories but the overall theme here is hope. While there are no overt feathers floating about in the stories, still, there is a comforter’s worth of downy literary substance in the air. Faced with challenging circumstances, many of the lead characters find a way to a hopeful place.

It sorta surprised me because I think of myself as someone who likes to plumb darkness, but I kept coming across dark situations that led to moments of hope, and moments of connection between characters that I found surprising. I look back on those years, from 2013 to now [2022], losing a close friend, having my father suffer from dementia, and I can see different themes. A mother passing away from cancer and cancer always works its way…and I can see these themes that in almost all the stories that I ended up choosing, there was a surprising figure. Like Mr. Voice in the first story. And I think I was finding that I was finding such connection in my family and in my friends, even during a hard several years, personally and politically for a lot of people, I think I was looking for those places where you felt some refuge. – from the Spokesman Review print interview

A subset of this is characters, particularly young ones, coming to define themselves, to mold themselves into the people they want to be, rather than simply accepting the pre-fab path that has been laid out for them.

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – The Angel of Rome

In To the Corner, one youngster seems to find a way forward, out of the despair that permeates the place where he has been growing up. Before You Blow centers on a young woman who finds an unexpected career option in her future, In Fran’s Friend Has Cancer, a character wonders just how much of their life it is possible to control.

Place is important to Walter

Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way. – from the Seattle Times interview

More than half the stories are set in Spokane, with one in Boise and another in Bend, Oregon. Three travel farther afield, with one each in Manhattan, Rome, and Mississippi.

Fame
There are several famous characters in the collection. Mr Voice is a household name in Spokane for his voice-over work there. The Famous Actor is both impressed by his own fame, and massively insecure. One of the characters in Before You Blow is destined for fame, of a sort. The Angel of Rome features two stars, an Italian actress and an American TV actor. Walter manages to give them all personalities, for good or ill (mostly good).

Angels
Maybe not the magical sort, but no less benevolent. Mr Voice turns out to be so much more than meets the eye. An American actor in Rome takes a shaky American scholar under his wing. An old friend comes to the rescue of a woman in great need. An old man turns his despair into a pointed generosity.

Teens
Most of the stories focus on characters in their teens and twenties, some adding a POV from the character looking back decades later. A couple focus on older people

Thematic threads, and literary gifts are of no matter if the characters do not gain and hold our interest. Thankfully writing characters you can relate to is yet another tool in his shed. Jess Walter can be counted on to write tales that are both image-rich and accessible. But he also gives us relatable characters, heart-rending tales, great twists, and a comedy-club-night-out worth of raucous laughter. You will be charmed, moved, and very satisfied. A triumph of a collection, The Angel of Rome, I am sure even Kali would agree, is simply heaven-sent.

“I guess it seems to me”—Jeremiah pauses, choosing his words carefully—“that you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.”

Review posted – July 15, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

======================================THE STORIES

Story 1 – Mr. Voice
Tanya’s father has been out of the picture forever. Mom eliminated boyfriends like they were murder suspects. A looker, she was never short on male attention. But at some point you make a choice and hope for a life. Mom chose Mr. Voice, older, a voice-over performer well known in Spokane. Tanya looks back from forty-nine on her years with her Mom and stepfather from when she was nine into her teens. An intensely moving tale of parental sorts connecting, or failing, and lessons to be learned about relationships, with a gut-punch finale.

Story 2 – Fran’s Friend Has Cancer
On aging, lives being reduced to feeling-free stories
Sheila and Max, an older couple, are having lunch before a Broadway matinee when they notice something strange.

In that story there’s somebody doing what I used to do when I wanted to learn how to write dialogue, sitting in a restaurant, recording the way people speak. I really just wanted to get patterns of speech down. And I started thinking about the…kind of arrogance of that, and…just what sort of flawed thinking it is that just by overhearing a conversation you could create a whole human being. – from the Spokesman Review video interview

…most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. – from the Seattle Times interview

Max confronts the writer and finds a whole other layer of concern.

Story 3 – Magnificent Desolation
Jacob is a 12-yo with an attitude problem. His constant smirk accompanies his constant challenging of career science teacher Edward Wells over basic scientific truths with “We don’t believe in that.” When Wells has had enough he e-mails Jacob’s parents. What to do when he is instantly smitten with Jacob’s mother? There are wonderful references here to two contributions to the world by Buzz Aldrin.

Story 4 – Drafting
Myra is 24, way too young to have cancer, to be facing the possibility of an early reaper. Needing a way back to living, she gets in touch with an ex, someone who provided her a highlight film of her emotional life. Beautiful, moving ending.

…so Myra told the carpenter’s wife how, during radiation, there was a moment when she thought it might be okay to die. “In fact, it was like I was already gone—like I was looking back at my life. And I could see the whole thing laid out, like, I don’t know, a straight line. You’re a kid. You go to school. And you see where the line is supposed to go: boyfriend, job, husband, baby, whatever. But when I looked at the line…the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts…the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.

Story 5 – The Angel of Rome
is a coming of age story that very much reminded me of the amazing film, My Favorite Year. It is the longest story in the book, more of a novella really, at 65 pages. Nebraska twenty-one-year-old, Jack Rigel, has somehow signed up for a Latin class being taught at the Vatican. He is, of course, in way over his head. About to pack it in and return home he stumbles across a magical scene.

It was like looking into another world, the room so bright as to seem luminescent, like a religious painting, the sparkle of bejeweled patrons, swirl of silverware and wineglasses, gleaming white-shirted waiters carrying trays of rich food, every table filled with beautiful people. They laughed and gestured and smiled like movie stars.
It was as if some kind of dream has been constructed on the other side of this glass. And then I had the simplest realization: I have always been on the outside.

But what if you are invited in? An American TV star, believing Jack is fluent in Italian, and wanting to say something to a woman on his film, hires Jack as his interpreter. This is a hilarious, heart-warming tale that really, really deserves to be made into a film. It began as an audio original, and is the only story in the collection to have a collaborator. Walter had worked with actor Eduardo Ballerini before. Ballerini had read other Walter works for audio books. The paired work, a rare, maybe singular event on Walter’s career, turned out to be hugely satisfying. Walter’s love letter to Rome, this is one of the most fun stories I have ever read, LOLing throughout. You will be charmed, una dolce favola.

Story 6 – Before You Blow
Jeans is seventeen, a high school senior, waitressing in a local Italian restaurant. Joey is 22, works the pizza over Friday and Saturday. There will be flirting and more as Jeans is deciding whether to give this guy her V-chip. There are issues with Joey, but he is pre-law, from a long line of lawyers, which impresses her parents no end.

Your older brother Mike wanted to be a motorcycle cop; that’s what passed for ambition in your family. It was the first time you really thought about a career having anything to do with your station in life. Before, you always thought of careers as simple job descriptions, like figurines in an old PlaySkool town. This one’s a fireman. That one’s a teacher. It didn’t occur to you that a certain profession might make you a more important person, a better human being.

But there are some concerns. Maybe he’s a catch, maybe not. All it takes is a high-stress situation to put it to the test.

In the video interview linked in EXTRA STUFF, Walter reads this story, beginning at about 25:00. It is delicious.

Story 7 – Town and Country
Jay’s father is losing his grip, memory becoming increasingly dodgy, wandering off, mostly to bars. He has not lost his appetite for booze, cigarettes and women. When it becomes too much Jay looks into residential care facilities for him, most of which suck. But then he learns about a very special place, Town & Country, which is both an original kind of care place for a declining population in need of the comfort of an imagined familiarity and a powerful metaphor for a larger senescence.

He wouldn’t know an email from an emu. But this is what happened with him now—he would hear some phrase on TV (Hillary’s emails, slut shaming, Make America Great Again) and it would rattle around in his brain until it became real.

Story 8 – Cross the Woods
Maggie, a single mom, was in a relationship with Markus that seemed more a serial hook-up than anything else. But she had feelings for the guy, despite his fondness for bolting before dawn. After a year of not seeing each other, he shows up at her father’s funeral, and she feels drawn to him again, despite their past. Has she really changed? Has he?

Maggie wondered then if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry, satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.

Story 9 – To the Corner
Leonard is an old, depressed widower, wondering about the point of living. A group of kids hang out on the corner, and indulge in some awful behavior He despairs for them as well. His ditto-head son has given him a gun, supposedly for protection against these middle-school desperadoes. Is there really no way out of this descending spiral?

Walter had been a reading tutor at a local Elementary School

“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.” – from the Spokesman-Review print interview

Story 10 – Famous Actor
The rich and famous are different from the rest of us, aren’t they?

Story 11 – Balloons
Ellis is 19, and the bane of his parents for not having a paying job. Mom gets him a gig checking up on Mrs Ahearn, the 40-something widow who lives across the street, doing a little shopping, raking leaves, being tongue kissed and having his ass grabbed. Life is not made any easier by having a sainted genius brother in U of Wash law school. Over the course of a few months, Ellis learns some things, and comes to a new appreciation for the experience of others.

That’s the thing, I guess—how impossible it is to know a thing before you know it. What whiskey will taste like. What it’s like to kiss someone. Probably even what it’s like to lose a husband.

Story 12 – The Way the World Ends
Two climate scientists interview for a teaching job at a Central Mississippi college. It gets raucous, which is a challenge for recently out Jeremiah, who is in charge of the guest house where both applicants are staying. Amid the partying there is much conversation about the despair of scientists, but also of reasons not to give up.

Among climate scientists, it’s called “pre-traumatic stress disorder” but the feelings are no joke: anger, hopelessness, depression, panic—a recurring nightmare in which you see the tsunami on the horizon but can’t convince anyone to leave the beach. She knows scientists who have become drunks, who have dropped out and moved to the desert, who have committed suicide.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My reviews of earlier work by Jess Walter
—–2020 – The Cold Millions
—–2013 – We Live in Water

Interviews
—–Seattle Times – Spokane author Jess Walter on writing short stories, his working-class roots and his hometown by Emma Levy
—–The Spokesman Review – Northwest Passages: Jess Walter and ‘Angel of Rome’ – with Shawn Vestal – video
—–The Spokesman-Review – Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through by Carolyn Lamberson

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton

book cover

…my childhood was one long nightmare, really. But this is different. Unfinished business—a time bomb ticking quietly like a second heart in my chest.

He’s been up to his old tricks again.

All is not what it seems. Ebbing is a small coastal community, rich with day-trippers, and increasingly, week-enders. We meet a cast of locals, Dave, the owner of a pub, The Neptune, Toby and Saul, who own The Lobster Shack, the postwoman, Pete Diamond, a new arrival eager to run a music festival, the unspeakable Pauline, and plenty more.

Elise knew that Ebbing wasn’t like its neighbors, Bosham or West Wittering. It didn’t feature in the Bayeux Tapestry or have thousands of visitors surging in like a spring tide on a nice day. An old fish factory with a corrugated roof squatted in the armpit of the curved sea wall guarding the harbor, and the ten thousand inhabitants lived mostly in prefabs, housing estate boxes, and salt-stained bungalows rather than thatched cottages but Elise didn’t mind. It felt a bit more real—and it was all she could afford on her own if she wanted to be by the sea. She’d never really considered it until recently—she was a city girl, through and through—but she’d worked up this fantasy that the sea would be company.

DI Elise King, 43, is on extended leave, still recovering from, and being treated for, a nasty bout of breast cancer. Well, that and a broken heart after the sudden end to a long-term relationship. Being stuck, unable to properly get back to major-crimes work is a hardship of another sort.

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Fiona Barton – image from the Madeline Milburn Agency

Luckily for her, there just happens to be a notable local person missing in Ebbing. Charlie Perry is 73, silver-haired, (I see Bill Nighy) a particularly friendly sort, a local sweetheart, with an adult disabled daughter on whom he dotes. He is involved in many local charities, and has a kind word for everyone. We meet Charlie in the prologue, affixed to a chair, gagged, waiting for his captors to return, desperate to escape.

The second piece that gets Elise moving is Ronnie, her charming, if intrusive, next-door neighbor. A particularly effervescent sort, she bubbles over on learning that Elise is a murder detective, and nudges her to get involved in solving the mystery of Charlie’s disappearance, unofficially of course, and just by following small leads.

But there are other local curiosities that bear looking into as well. Two young people collapse at a local music festival after consuming some tainted drugs, (how did those drugs get there?) and a local barn catches fire mysteriously. There is a fair bit of unfaithfulness, more than a bit of financial distress, and lots and lots of secrets.

Of course, small leads lead to more questions, which lead to more leads which lead to… and on it grows. This offers Elise a way to test out her weakened physical and mental muscles, building her confidence, as long as she stays in the good graces of her colleagues in the local constabulary.

The structure is to alternate current action (in which Elise, with Ronnie, conducts a private investigation and in which sundry characters try to cope with emerging facts) with a recounting of events that led up to the present unwelcome state of affairs. We go back to seventeen days before Saturday, August 24, 2019, and step up to the present, day by day for the most part. Chapters are labeled with when events take place using the metric of the number of days before August 24. Both current and look-back chapters shift POV. Our primary character, Elise King, takes the most (37) but Dee, her house-cleaner takes up a fair number (19). Charlie gets 8 and 9 chapters are distributed among other characters. Barton is a master at presenting diverse POVs. It is always clear who is speaking, whose eyes are providing our witness.

One lovely element of this Fiona Barton novel was the rise in prominence of place. It has not been a major focus in the past, except in The Suspect, which included a lot about Thailand.

We moved here three years ago and it was lovely because we’d never lived by the sea before. So I had all this new material when we moved here. Lots of new people to watch and y’know, take notes about and so I decided that I would set my next book in Ebbing. Fictitious town. Did not want to get weighed down by a real location…I’ve had a lot of fun…describing this small rundown seaside town…It is not one of the chi-chi ones that everybody wants to buy a property in, but it’s full of characters. – from The Poisoned Pen Bookstore interview

She writes about the tension experienced in any gentrifying place, as locals become economically squeezed by more affluent outsiders. Another change for Barton this time is that her main character is a detective. Her prior series featured a journalist, reflecting Barton’s many years as a pro in that field.

In any mystery there are two general things to look at, the story itself (Is it interesting? Does it make sense?) and the appeal of the lead. Do you want to spend 384 pages with this person? Not to worry. We are introduced to Elise King as she is struggling to work her way back to the love of her life, the thing she is best at, the thing that gives her the most satisfaction, her work. The limitations she experiences are the result of her illness, an act of God essentially, and not the product of substance abuse or moral failing. Another element that is crucial to a satisfying mystery, a subset of story I guess, is that it offers surprises. You may need a neck brace to prepare for the whiplash from the many twists that Barton has woven into her plot. There are a couple of particularly good ones near the end.

The supporting cast is a true strength in this one. Dee gets a lot of screen time, so we get to know her second-best. It is a fun challenge trying to figure out what is going on with her. Pauline, Charlie’s wife, is comedically awful. Ronnie is a wonderful support and much-needed nudge for Elise. I was very happy to learn that Barton plans another Ebbing-based tale, and Elise and Ronnie will both be back.

Bottom line is that I found Local Gone Missing to be an entertaining mystery, with engaging characters, a compelling core story, and a string of related events that is tightly woven into a very readable book. If you can locate a copy you will not be sorry.

“You have to remember that monsters don’t look the part, Ronnie,” she said. “They’re not marked out in any way. If only . . . They live among us in plain sight. In their cardigans and sensible shoes. They have library cards, buy a poppy for Remembrance Day. They’re the man or woman next door who picks up a pint of milk for you, asks after your parents, or takes in parcels from deliverymen.” All the while planning their next act of depravity.

Review posted – July 1, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received an ARE of Local Gone Missing from Berkley in return for finding it in myself to write a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interview
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – Fiona Barton in conversation with Barbara Peters. Barton discusses Local Gone Missing – video
—–Crime Café – Interview with Crime Writer Fiona Barton: S. 8, Ep. 1

My review of an earlier book by Fiona Barton
—–The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)

Songs/Music
—–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Theme song to Peaky Blinders – Red Right Hand – referenced in chapter 14

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense

Aurora by David Koepp

book cover

When nothing works anything goes.

Be Prepared! – Boy Scout Motto

Ever since the Neolithic and the introduction of sedentary farming, we are a species that has evolved to rely on external supports to keep us going, an infrastructure that provides water, transportation routes and means, manufacturing, either by hand or machine, of things we need that we do not or cannot make for ourselves, and means of communication that do not require direct line of sight, or being within proximate hearing distance. So, what happens when one of the absolute necessities undergirding all our infrastructures vanishes? It’s not like the K-Pg asteroid that obliterated vast numbers of species across the planet in a day, 66 million years ago. How might people react when there is a sudden, if not immediately lethal, change in our way of living? Will we devolve to warring tribes? Will we come together for the common good? Some combination? Something else entirely?

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David Koepp – image from his site

This time it is a major solar flare, aka a CME or Coronal Mass Ejection. Which I prefer to think of, because I am twelve, as massive projectile solar vomiting. (Probably had too much to drink at that intergalactic frat party. It likes beer!) We have not seen the likes of such a mass ejection since 1859. (If we do not count the Braves-Padres game of August 12, 1984, when 17 players and coaches were asked to leave, but I digress). When it arrived back then it did not really make that much difference. We were a pre-electrical civilization. Telegraphy had a bad day. A few wires got fried. This and that went wrong. But no big whup, really. This time the solar storm is the same, but the results will be dramatically different. These days we are a species that is reliant on electricity for almost everything. Very big whup this time. The power spike of power spikes. Everything shuts down, or close enough to it.

There are a few scientists who see what is about to happen. They warn the people who need to be warned, or try. Think the film Don’t Look Up, or almost any disaster film. Of course, the reaction of world leaders is not what Koepp is looking at here.

The notion of extraordinary global events that deprive us of power—in ways both literal and figurative—is something I’ve explored in the past. But it was fascinating to shift my focus from the global to the hyperlocal, and the ways in which tiny communities might come together or split apart during hardship. – from the acknowledgments

There was a wonderful series of ads on in 2020 and 2021, for a shingles vaccine. A person would be shown doing something healthful, or telling how they take care of themselves. The sonorous voice-over would interrupt with “Shingles Doesn’t Care,” which was pretty funny, and memorable, getting the advertiser’s message across that people over 50 should get vaccinated. I thought of that while reading this book. No, no one in the book is suffering from that virus-based ailment, but we are reminded over and over that the best laid plans of mice and men…(Actually the original, from the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns, goes The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley), which we will translate here into the modern patois of Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are the usual suspects who insist that the bad thing is never gonna happen, deniers at full volume. (Sadly, these are all too much a mindless, know-nothing, demagogic trope in real life, so no reaching is required.) Why waste precious government resources (which reminds me of precious bodily fluids from another era) on things like girding for a known, expected emergency, when it can be redirected to building walls, jails, ethnic hatred, religious intolerance, and paranoia, or cutting taxes for the richest. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

Ok, so a very hard rain is gonna fall, and we need some folks to be our eyes and ears through the experience. Aubrey Wheeler is our primary POV. She is 38 and the default parent of her step-son, Scott, 16. Her ex, Rusty, is a disaster, enough so that when he left, Scott opted to remain with Aubrey.

The guy who impressed Aubrey when they met has taken a nose-dive straight to the bottom, drugs, crime, amorality, and a willingness to use anyone to get what he wants. Rusty was a “shit,” used in the classical sense of “waste matter expelled from the body,” because he had been an enormous misuse of her time, resources, and love.

They reside in Aurora, Illinois, a city of nearly 200,000. But within that, a much tinier slice. Cayuga Lane fit the model of what Aubrey had been trying to build since she was little. Ten minutes from downtown, it was short cul-de-sac with six houses, most of them old builds from the 1920s or ‘30s. Small community number one.

How about if you set up a safe house, a place where you can weather the storm, whether it is months or years, lots of supplies on hand, expertise being shipped there as we speak, lots of nice insulating earth between y’all and the incoming energy burst? Someplace out of the way, say, outside Jericho, Utah. Small community number two.

Thom Banning is an obnoxious billionaire tech sort, brilliant in his way, but maybe not the most gifted person on Earth with people skills. He has reconfigured an old missile site as his personal bug-out retreat in the event of a catastrophe like this one. He even figured in all the professional sorts he might like to have at hand for a long time away from everything. Security, power, comms, food, food-prep, transportation, living space, lots of cash. Excellent Boy Scout work. But then there is that people-person chink. He aspires to reconcile with his wife there. Thom is Aubrey’s big brother. I was in NYC when superstorm Sandy set Con Ed’s Manhattan transformers sparking and popping like slow-sequence firecrackers. Prep all you like. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are smaller looks elsewhere. A city area does not fare well. Reports come in from other places, generally not in a very hopeful way. But the how-are-they-faring focus is primarily on Aurora, and Thom’s redoubt. Koepp wanted to write a ground-level, personal perspective to a disastrous global event, while contrasting someone who was uber-prepared with someone who was not prepared at all.

The story alternates between Aubrey, in Aurora, and Thom, et al, in his tricked-out missile silo, living La Dolce Vita relative to most of humanity, with a few breaks to see through other eyes.

The supporting cast is a mixed lot. Rusty is a baddie from the build-a-loser shop. We have to wonder, even though Koepp offers us a paragraph of explanation, how Aubrey did not see through his act way sooner. He is a powerful presence, but pretty much pure id. There is more going on with Scott, the stepson. A young scientist photobombs the story then vanishes until called on for a cameo later on. An elderly scientist offers a nice touch of deep, zen-like appreciation for the wonders of nature, while shedding bits of goodness and optimism like a seed-stage dandelion on a windy day.

The idea of how different communities might respond to disaster certainly offers us the chance to consider how things might develop in our communities. Would our neighbors come together to forge a way forward, or form armed bands to take whatever they wanted?

The relationship between Aubrey and Thom is a connective thread that sustains a tension level throughout. What is the big secret, often hinted at, which binds them? What level of crazy will Rusty reach? How far will he go?

I would have preferred a bit more on the science and details of how a newly power-free world slows to a stop, with discussion about what would be needed to crank things back up. But that’s just me. The story in no way requires this.

Aurora does not break new ground with its local-eyed view of global phenomena, but it works that approach effectively enough. Aubrey is an appealing lead, disorganized, very human, flawed, but very decent at heart, thus someone we can easily root for. Characters do grow (some better, some worse) over the duration, which is what we look for in good writing. You will want to know what happens next, and next, and next, so should keep flipping the pages. There is not a lot of humor here, but still, I caught a few LOLs sprinkled in. It seems to have been written very much for the screen, with a minimum of internal dialogue, and an absence of florid description. Plot is uber alles here, driving the engine forward.

Movie rights have been sold, which is not at all surprising, given the author’s impressive career as a screenwriter and director. Kathryn Bigelow has been signed to direct it for Netflix.

This is a wonderful Summer read, mostly a thriller to keep the juices flowing. Hopefully, it prompts you to give at least some thought to how your community might react when faced with a comparable crisis. High art it ain’t, but it does not intend to be. No Sleeping Beauty here, this Aurora is a page-turner of a thriller and will keep you wide awake while you read.

…last year, things made sense. Last year, you walked into the grocery store, you paid a fair price, and you came out with your dinner. This year, you beg somebody to sell you a week’s worth of groceries for a thousand dollars. ‘if you’re lucky, they say yes, and you eat. If you’re not. They beat you to death, take your money, and they eat.

Review posted – June 24, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From his site

David Koepp has written or co-written the screenplays for more than thirty films, including Apartment Zero (1989), Bad Influence (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Paper (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Snake Eyes (1998), Panic Room (2002), Spider-Man (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Angels & Demons (2009), and Inferno (2016).
As a director, his work includes the films The Trigger Effect (1996), Stir of Echoes (1999), Secret Window (2004), Ghost Town (2007), Premium Rush (2012), and You Should Have Left (2020). Ghost Town and Premium Rush were co-written with the enigmatic John Kamps.
Koepp’s first novel, Cold Storage, was published by Ecco in 2019, and his new story Yard Work is coming from Audible Originals in July.

Interviews
—–Author Stories – David Koepp – a lot on his experience of writing novels and screenplays rather than about this book in particular. But they do get to Aurora in the final third – audio – 43:20
—–The Nerd Daily – Q&A: David Koepp, Author of ‘Aurora’ by Elise Dumpleton

Items of Interest
—–FEMA – Catastrophic Earthquake Planning – New Madrid Seismic Zone
—– Mid-America Earthquake Center – Civil and Environmental Engineering Department University of Illinois – Impact of Earthquakes on the Central USA
—–Deadline – Kathryn Bigelow To Direct Adaptation Of David Koepp Novel ‘Aurora’ For Netflix
—–Doctor Strangelove – Precious Bodily Fluids

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