Tag Archives: Fiction

The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jess Kidd – image from The Bookseller – by Cordula Tremi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – December 16, 2022

Publication date – October 18, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

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

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

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

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Olesya Salnikova Gilmore – image from her site

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

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Image from The House of Twigs

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

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

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

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

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

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Image from King Edward’s Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image from Meet the Slavs

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

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

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Image from Amino Apps

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

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

Review posted – 11/25/22

Publication date – 9/20/22

I received an ARE of The Witch and the Tsar from Ace of Berkley of Penguin Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lungfish by Meghan Gilliss

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

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

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

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Meghan Gilliss – image from Skylark Bookshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – October 14, 2022

Publication date – September 13, 2022

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

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

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

Links to Gilliss’ personal and Instagram pages

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

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

Item of Interest from the author
—–Bomb – excerpt

Item of Interest
—–William Blake – The Tyger

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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

book cover

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

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

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

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

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T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page

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

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

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

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

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

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Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative

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

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

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Image from from TV Tropes

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

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

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

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Image from Television Heaven

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

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia

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

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

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

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Image from Filo News

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

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

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

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From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix

Review posted – September 9, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Novella

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

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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