Tag Archives: Fiction

The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale

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God save Nellie from the ladies’ pages. If a woman was lucky enough to get a job working for a paper—which spared her from working in a factory, or as a domestic or a wife (shudder)—she would have to spend her days writing about household hints and recipes, garden shows and charity luncheons. It was mind-numbingly tedious and she wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was one reason why she had left Pittsburgh.

There is nothing worse than being told that you don’t know your own mind or body. If you aren’t mad when you go in, chances are you will be by the time you come out.

When twenty-three-year-old Nellie Bly headed to New York City in 1887, she left a message for her boss at The Pittsburgh Gazette.

I’m off for New York. Look out for me.
—Nellie Bly

Good advice. It was no easy task for Elizabeth (Elly) Jane Cochrane. Women in journalism were relegated to the “ladies’ page” when they were hired at all. And often had to use pen names to get their work into print. Persistence paid off, though, and Cochrane finally got a gig with The New York World, by promising to go undercover at the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island. (called Roosevelt Island today). The notorious institution had already been the subject of multiple journalistic examinations. But it was a tough place to get into, and, as it had changed from a co-ed institution to a women’s asylum in 1872, it would take a female to be able to get inside, one of the downsides to journalism being such a boys’ club. But Nellie’s self-confidence, and courage, knew no bounds, so she dove right in.

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Maya Rodale – image from Open Shelf – photo by Elsa Ngan

The Mad Girls of New York is a novelization of Bly’s actual early adventures in NYC. Some of the characters are taken from Bly’s seminal work, Ten Days in an Asylum, which was comprised of and expanded from the articles she had written for the New York World, a series that made her reputation. She persuaded those who needed persuading that she was mad, in order to be institutionalized as a patient. It was surprisingly easy. Once in, she experienced the horrors inflicted on the patients, although inmates would have been more accurate.

The asylum was a physically cold place, and the residents were provided with painfully inadequate clothing and covers. The food was unspeakable, often insect-ridden, the physical accommodations spartan, the doctors dismissive, the nurses abusive, and the cleanliness regimen was cruel. It did not help that some of the help was recruited from the prison that was also on the island.

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Nellie Bly – image from the Irish Times

We meet several groups of characters. The journalism pack leads off. This includes the editors she interviews during a project on why the papers do not hire women. There is a fair bit of LOL to be had in this as she leaves them spinning and sputtering in their own contradictions. There are the other women journalists with whom she engages, a club of sorts, who help each other out, getting together in an establishment, The Ordinary, that serves women only. Such institutions did exist at the time. She has a competition going with a male reporter, Sam Colton, from Chicago. There is also a simmering attraction between the two, but it is not romancy enough to intrude into the story too much, thankfully. There is also a flirtation with the hunky, single mayor.

When you learn that there was in fact a hot bachelor mayor of New York City named Hugh Grant, you must include it in your novel. – from Rodale’s Twitter feed

Rodale has produced numerous romance novels, (22 by my count, plus some novellas, a children‘s book and a couple of non-fics) so it would have been a shock if there were not some sparks flying in this tale. But if you are hoping for ignition into conflagration, you will have to check out her considerable romance work instead.

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The New York City Asylum for the Insane – image from Wikipedia – cheery-looking, no?

Then there are the patients. Anne is in need of care, but cannot afford decent treatment at a private institution. The Princess has a regal bearing but will only say three words, Rose, Daisy, and Violet, over and over. Tillie has a nervous condition, truly needs some rest, some peace and quiet, in a warm place, but her friends dumped her off at Bellevue (with friends like that…). Prayer Girl, who pleads with god to kill her ASAP, somehow never takes the initiative herself. Women are committed to this place for a variety of reasons, few of them good. Many devolve to a broad category of their being inconvenient, something Martha Mitchell might recognize. Then there is Mrs Grady, the Nurse Ratched of this enterprise, a cruel overseer, super control freak, eager to inflict pain and punishment and never willing to hear any of the real concerns of her charges. Toss in a few cruel cops and attendants, a clueless doctor, and another who at least shows some bits of humanity.

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Newspaper Row in Lower Manhattan. That is City Hall in the foreground on the left. The domed building to the east of City Hall is the New York World Building. The Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been built when this shot was taken, but if it had, it would appear to the north (left) of the World Bldg) – image from Stuff Nobody Cares About

Rodale’s focus is on how women were treated, not just in this horrid institution, but in all institutions of the wider world, using her story-telling skills to show us how women were regarded as a lesser life form, in politics, in journalism, in finance, in the overall world of work, well…paid work. Slaving at home for hubby and progeny was still just fine and dandy. She shows the struggles that smart, driven women had to endure in order to access the same level of opportunity and respect as men, just to be able to cover hard news. Bly was one of a group of women called “Girl Stunt Reporters,” daring women journalists who put themselves in peril in order to delve into many of the social wrongs of the late 19th century.

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Hugh J. Grant two-term NYC Mayor – image from Wikipedia

Rodale spices up the story, as if it needed additional condiments, with a mystery about a high-society spouse gone strangely missing, with the widower chomping at the bit to wed a younger, richer, woman. She incorporates actual historical events and people into the tale, sometimes with name changes, sometimes with tweaking of timelines. Some personages retain their names, including the aforementioned mayor, Hugh Grant, (who did not actually become mayor until 1889, two years after the events of this novel) Hetty Green (The Witch of Wall Street), Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a writer of articles about beauty and health for the New York World, and others.

Despite the harshness of the conditions Bly, and now Rodale, reveal, there is no graphic violence or sexual behavior in The Mad Girls of New York. This helps make it perfectly suitable for younger readers, particularly girls, who may not know about Nellie, and what a pioneer she was. It is a very fluid, quick read.

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Hetty Green – The Witch of Wall Street – image from wiki

The book is listed as A Nellie Bly Novel #1, so we can presume there are more in the works. I do not have any inside intel on this, but I imagine that Nellie’s around-the-world-in-80-days challenge (she did it in 72) will be among the upcomings. Something to look forward to.

Nellie’s story is a remarkable one. Rodale has done a very nice job of letting modern readers in on what Nellie faced as a gutsy, newbie reporter in New York, and what she accomplished, at least in the short term, encouraging us to learn more about this brilliant, dogged, remarkable woman. You’d have to be crazy to pass this one by.

The madhouse had been horrible, but this part—writing it all down with the promise of seeing the atrocities in print, made it feel worthwhile. When she thought of the public reading her words and knowing about the suffering that happened at Blackwell’s, Nellie felt shivers. Do stunts, Marian had flippantly suggested. But Nellie had found her life’s work.

Review posted – May 6, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Mad Girls of New York from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Can I get a warmer blanket, please?

This review has been cross-posted Goodreads.

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

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

Interview
—–Wine, Women and Words – Nerding out about Nellie with Maya Rodale with Michelle Leivas and Diana Giovinazzo

Item of Interest from the author
—–Lithub – The Real-Life Heroines of an Outrageous Era: A Gilded Age Reading List

My obsession with the Gilded Age began with romance novels—I wanted to set a series in old New York in the world of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and dollar Princesses, which felt like an updated version of the Regency Era. But in researching the time period I discovered that the best stories weren’t just uptown in Fifth Avenue mansions—they were everywhere. I also discovered that the Gilded Age was a golden age for independent, ambitious, boundary breaking real life heroines.
One of my favorites is Nellie Bly…She was the first and most daring of the stunt girl reporters, who found fame and success by going undercover to report stories that detailed women’s experiences as factory girls, or getting abortions, or learning ballet.

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Nellie Bly
—–Wiki on Hugh J. Grant – NYC’s 88th mayor
—–Wiki on Hetty Green – “The Witch of Wall Street” – Marian goes to see her to get intel on Jay Wallace in chapter 24
—–Wiki on – Harriet Ayer – Nellie’s mentor in the book
—–Library of Congress – Research Guide for Nellie Bly
—–Gutenberg – Ten Days in a Madhouse – the full text
—–Wiki on The Martha Mitchell effect
—–Smithsonian – These Women Reporters Went Undercover to Get the Most Important Scoops of Their Day – an outstanding piece by Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters
—–Wiki on The Ladies Ordinary – a women-only establishment where Nellie meets with other reporters
—–For a real blow to your consciousness, check out this site, for Octagon NYC. This part of the original asylum has been converted, as all things in NYC are, into luxury housing. The prices are insane. (a 540 sq ft studio is $3,028 a month, a 3 BR, 1,316 sq ft goes for $7500 a month)
—–The American Journal of Psychiatry has a brief, but informative, piece – The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the New York Press

Reminds Me Of
—–Leslie Parry’s 2015 novel, Church of Marvels, includes a look at Blackwell’s when one of the characters spends some time inside.
—–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the film

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York City

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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I had a hand in breaking all of this. I had to have a hand in fixing it.

When does helping become controlling? When does loving become smothering? When does zeal become interference? How does one do what one knows is best without crossing the line? Civil Townsend, a 23-year-old nurse in the Montgomery Alabama of 1973 has to figure all that out. Working for a federally funded family planning clinic, Civil is one of several nurses responsible for administering Depo-Provera shots to young women patients. The Williams family is her first case. They live in a cabin that is little more than a shack on a farmer’s property, Mace, the father, Mrs Williams, his mother, and two girls, Erica and India. Civil does her job, but after having administered the shots learns that neither eleven-year-old India nor thirteen-year-old Erika has had her first period. In fact, neither of the girls has even kissed a boy yet. So why are they receiving birth-control shots? She learns as well that there are questions about the safety of the shots, which had been found to cause cancer in test animals. She starts looking into what might be done about this.

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Dolen Perkins-Valdez – image from American University

Civil has the hard-charging enthusiasm of a rookie, eager to do all in her power to help those in need. Her background is nothing like that of her patients. Her father is a doctor, and her mother an artist. They raised her to do good, even named her for their aspirations of achieving civil rights for black people.

Civil learns how hard it is to go up against authority
She is complicated. She does not always do the right thing. She stumbles in her zeal.
– from the Politics and Prose interview

Civil does everything she can to help the family, gets them some public services, a decent place to live, schooling. And she has an impact, but, on a day when Civil is not working, the head nurse at the clinic tricks the family into signing papers agreeing to the girls’ sterilization. Civil’s alarm turns to rage, and then to fighting for change, so this outrage can never happen again to other unsuspecting girls and young women.

It is 1973, only a year since the infamous, forty-years-long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was finally shut down. In that one, hundreds of black men were supposedly being treated for syphilis, but in fact no one was being treated. Of the four hundred who were diagnosed with the disease, one hundred died of syphilis directly or complications from the disease. Dozens of wives were infected, and children were born already afflicted. All this, to see how syphilis ran its course in the untreated.

Civil’s activity gets a lawsuit started locally. But soon a young civil rights lawyer, Lou Feldman, is brought in. He transforms it into a national cause célèbre, as the case shifts from looking at the individual harm done to the Williams family to the national disgrace of the forced sterilization of tens thousands.

Our research reveals that over the past few years, nearly one hundred fifty thousand low-income women from all over the nation have been sterilized under federally funded programs.

He wants the laws changed, to end this practice. It is a huge concern for the Black community, but the novel makes clear that there were other groups who were victimized by this heinous practice.

The story take place in two, very unequal timelines. The frame is Civil at sixty-seven, a doctor in 2016, returning to Montgomery after a long absence to see the Williams girls. India is dying. This offers us an ongoing where-are-they-now report. The bulk of the novel takes place in 1973 and immediately after.

Civil struggles with her guilt over having played a part in this horror. It is clear that the notions that had supported legislators allowing such things were not entirely unfamiliar. Civil talks with Lou about the history of eugenics.

“So the idea was what . . . to stop us from having children because we were inferior?” I whispered.
“Well, the ideas were often aimed at specific populations that included Black people, yes. But also the poor, the mentally retarded, the disabled, the insane…” Mrs. Seager probably put the girls in three of these misguided categories: poor, Black, and mentally unfit. Had I done the same? I had initially deemed the girls unfit to be mothers, too. Because they were poor and Black. Because they were young. Because they were illiterate. My head spun with shame.
“Did they target poor white folks, too?” Ty asked.
Lou nodded. “Back in 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of people deemed unfit was constitutional. People in asylums all over this country were sterilized.”

Perkins-Valdez offers a most welcome maturity of perspective. Lou, a young, white lawyer, is viewed with suspicion to begin, but earns the community’s trust with his dedication, brilliance, grueling work habits, and effectiveness. He is lauded as a hero, while Mrs Seager, the head nurse, is shown as a flawed person who, though she was doing something terrible, thought she was doing the right thing. Characters take or avoid difficult decisions for understandable reasons. Even a black Tuskegee librarian whom Civil admires has a hard time understanding how she did not see what was going on right under her nose. There is very little good vs evil going on here in the character portrayals, only in the broader horror of a dark-hearted, racist and classist policy.

One of the many joys of the book is the portrayal of a time and place. There are details that add to the touch and feel.

The first thing that hit me was the odor. Urine. Body funk. Dog. All mixed with the stench of something salty stewing in a pot. A one-room house encased in rotted boards. A single window with a piece of sheet hanging over it. It was dark except for the sun streaming through the screen door and peeking through the holes in the walls. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that there were clothes piled on the bed, as if somebody had stopped by and dumped them. Pots, pans, and shoes lay strewn about on the dirt floor. Flies buzzed and circled the air. Four people lived in one room, and there wasn’t enough space. A lot of people in Montgomery didn’t have running water, but this went beyond that. I had to fight back vomit.

Some are more cultural, like the perceptions middle class black people in Montgomery had of poor black people, and the less fraught parallel football culture in which Alabama vs Auburn, followed by white people, is replaced for the black population with Alabama A&M vs Alabama State. News to me. We also get a taste of the segregation of the time, how bathroom accessibility while on the road could be problematic for those of the wrong skin color, how a beach that used to be open to all, and featured black-owned businesses, now required one to pay a park ranger and display a piece of paper on your car, the businesses now long gone.

The case on which Perkins-Valdez based her novel was a real one, Relf vs Weinberger, filed in July, 1973 in Washington D.C. by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Joseph Levin, one of the Center’s founders, was the young lawyer who prosecuted the case.

Mary Alice was 14 and Minnie was 12 when they became victims of the abusive practice of sterilizing poor, black women in the South. Their mother, who had very little education and was illiterate, signed an “X” on a piece of paper, expecting her daughters, who were both mentally disabled, would be given birth control shots. Instead, the young women were surgically sterilized and robbed of their right to ever bear children of their own. – from the SPLC

The story ultimately is about the horror of forced sterilization on poor black people and other classes deemed unfit to breed. You will learn a lot about a crime against humanity that was perpetrated by our own government, and the story of how this injustice was fought. But if the story does not engage, you may not get the benefit of the new knowledge it delivers. Thankfully, there need be no concern on that score. While we may echo the commentary of others to Civil that she did not bear any responsibility for what was done, that her guilt was helping no one, here is a very full-bodied portrait, of a flawed character. One who makes mistakes. A young person who has not yet learned when to push forward, when to take a step back. We see her learning this and can applaud when she takes steps in the proper direction. We also get to see the difficult family dynamic she must negotiate with her own parents, the burden of expectation that has been fitted to her broad shoulders, and the challenge of loving the Williams family, but not too much. And we have a front row seat to her relationships, her struggles, with friends and colleagues.

Take My Hand is a wonderful addition to the Perkins-Valdez oeuvre, begun with her outstanding 2009 novel, Wench, and followed by Balm in 2015. She has a fourth in the works, due to her publisher in October 2022, set in early 1900s North Carolina. So maybe a 2023 release?

A helping hand is often that, kindly meant, but maybe, sometimes, before you put your hand in another’s, you might want to know where it has been, and where it might be taking you. If the hand is attached to Dolen Perklins-Valdez, grasp it and hold on. It will take you somewhere wonderful.

I had never known that good intentions could be just as destructive as bad ones.

Review posted – April 22, 2022

Publication date – April 12, 2022

I received an ARE of Take my Hand from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks to Elisha K., and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from Simon & Schuster (mostly) and her site

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, PhD, is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Wench. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dr. Perkins-Valdez taught in the Stonecoast (Maine) MFA program and lives in Washington, DC, with her family. She is currently Chair of the Board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and is Associate Professor in the Literature Department at American University.

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s ‘Take My Hand’ Reaches for Hard Truths by Jen Doll

there was something about the Relf sisters she kept coming back to. “The thing that struck me about it was that, even though they’re only really mentioned in passing whenever we talk about this, it was a big deal at the time,” she says. The sisters’ ordeal was heavily covered in the press, and they appeared before a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Kennedy. “There were so many parts of it, to me, that felt absolutely remarkable. I think some people had heard a little bit about it, but they didn’t know enough. I wanted people to know enough.”

—–Politics and Prose bookstore – Dolen Perkins-Valdez — Take My Hand – in conversation with Victoria Christopher Murray
The sound level is uneven, which often makes it difficult to hear. But if you have a sound system the Q/A kicks in

My review of earlier work by the author
—–2010 – Wench

Songs/Music
—– Booker T. and the M.G.s – Behave Yourself – chapter 14
—–Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord Take My Hand – the epigraph notes MLK requesting this be played on his final day
—–Stevie Wonder – You Are the Sunshine of My Life – chapter 20

Items of Interest
—–Eunice Rivers – re the Tuskegee syphilis experiment
—–Mayo Clinic – Depo-Provera

Depo-Provera is a well-known brand name for medroxyprogesterone acetate, a contraceptive injection that contains the hormone progestin. Depo-Provera is given as an injection every three months. Depo-Provera typically suppresses ovulation, keeping your ovaries from releasing an egg. It also thickens cervical mucus to keep sperm from reaching the egg.

—– Mississippi Appendectomy
—–Southern Poverty Law Center – RELF V. WEINBERGER – the real-world case on which the novel is based
—–Wiki on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Public Health

The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

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

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

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Sarah Lotz – image from A.M. Heath

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

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Big Clock at Euston Station image from AllAboard.eu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – March 18, 2022

Publication date – March 22, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secret Identity by Alex Segura

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The comics business was messy—a slapdash sprint to meet immovable deadlines, a blur of pages flowing from production to editorial and back before being jettisoned out the door to the printer. Carmen loved it.

Miami was a city, too, Carmen knew—but New York was something else. A disease that bubbled and expanded and multiplied and morphed, like some kind of magical, mystical being that seemed from another world.

Carmen Valdez, late of Miami, is where she wants to be. She may not be exactly doing what she wants, but she is trying to get there. A New Yorker for the last year, Carmen is 28. She works at Triumph Comics, a third-tier publisher of such things, and is living the dream, if the dream is to be working as a secretary to a boss who cannot see past her gender, cannot even imagine a woman, let alone a Hispanic woman, actually writing stories for his press. But the stories are there, the ideas filling notebooks. She gives him some, but even if he bothers to read them, he dismisses the work out of hand. All she needs is a chance. And then one appears.

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Alex Segura – image from Comicsbeat

Harvey Stern is a junior editor there, young, friendly. They bond over a shared love of the medium (a love she had acquired from her father taking her out for father-daughter bonding that included the buying of comics). They are friendly without being quite friends. The house has a sudden need for a new character; Harvey is given the job of coming up with one, a female hero who will get a rise out of young male Triumph readers. Carmen sees her opportunity and offers to “help.” Their work together goes well. The story is mostly hers, of course, but Harvey has some skills. They produce a pretty good book. It does well. Problem is that no one other than she and Harvey knows the truth about how it came to be. Then Harvey suffers a BLAM! BLAM! leaving him with even less conscious corporeality than an invisible six-foot pooka. Guess who finds the body? And the noir gets dark.

I’ve always been fascinated with Megan Abbott’s work and her ability to bring the tenets of noir to areas where you wouldn’t expect noir to exist—gymnastics, cheerleading, science, and so on. She crafts these narratives that are tense, fraught, and loaded with style outside of the typical noir settings. I remember reading Dare Me and just thinking, huh, wouldn’t it be cool to write a comic book noir? – from The Big Thrill interview

Segura had recently finished writing his Pete Fernandez Miami Mysteries, so has the chops to produce a pretty good whodunit. Carmen sees, in short order, that the police are not up to the task. She also knows that unless she can figure out why Harvey was killed, and by whom, she will never be able to get recognition for her work, or maybe sleep at night. Harvey is not the last person attacked by a mysterious villain.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Secret identities abound here. Carmen hides her true author self from the boss because of the sexism of the age. Everyone seems to have a secret. Harvey certainly does did. Are all the names that we are given really the characters’ true names? Might there be an alias or two creeping around, for dark purposes?

she had to become someone else to survive

Segura has been busy in the comic book industry for many years, working on Archie Comics, while living in Miami, then moving to New York to work for DC. He has written detective novels, and a Star Wars book, stand-alone mysteries, short stories, a crime podcast, and probably an encyclopedia. He is married with kids, and I imagine that he must sleep some…time. Maybe he is one of the characters he writes about and his secret power is eternal wakefulness. Captain Insomnia takes on every request for writerly product, and satisfies them all.

He has a particular soft spot for the 1970s in the comics industry, when the industry’s body was laid out on the street, bleeding money and readers. Who would come to its rescue?

Well the comic book industry was really struggling at that time after the glory years of the 50s and 60s. Comics were struggling. It wasn’t like today, where we have shows about Peacemaker or obscure characters – it was considered a dying industry. So I wanted to use her passion for the medium and contrast it with comics at its lowest point, and then show her fighting to control this one thing she loves. – from the Three Rooms Press interview

This was a time when comic books were sold only on newsstands or in small stores, before there were comic book conventions, before the steady drumbeat of blockbuster films based on comic book characters. There was plenty wrong with the industry at the time (there probably still is), with notorious cases of people stealing credit for the work of others. Some of those are noted here. In fact, there are many references made to well-known names in the comic book industry. I am sorry to say that most just slipped past me, as I am not the maven for such things that Segura and no doubt many readers of this book are. I can report, though, that not knowing all the references did not at all detract from my overall enjoyment, and recognizing the ones I did enhanced the fun. He even tosses in a nod to a character of his from another project, as that character’s story was set in the same time period.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

There was plenty wrong with NYC at the time. I know. I remember. Fun City, originally a tossed-off line by a 1960s mayor facing multiple municipal crises (“It’s still a fun city.”) had not completed the shift to The Big Apple, itself a reconstitution of a city logo from the 1920s. The city, a political creation of the state, was starved by the state for the funds needed to provide the services it was required to offer, then was looked down on for that inability. It was a time when graffiti was ubiquitous, crime was up, and gentrification was beginning, as landlords were torching their properties to drive out residents so they could transform their buildings into co-ops. It was a time of white flight and a time when a local tabloid featured the infamous headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead, after NYC had turned to the federal government for aid. We get a taste with Carmen’s arrival.

the drab, claustrophobic walls of the Port Authority giving her the most honest first impression of New York she could expect. As she wandered the cavernous transport hub, a concrete behemoth at the tail end of the Lincoln Tunnel, she got a heavy dose of what she’d only imagined. A city in disrepair, boiled down into this one sprawling bus terminal. Leaky ceilings, shadowy conversations, blaring horns, and unidentifiable smells all coalesced into an unbridled fear that gripped Carmen as she stepped out into the New York sunlight.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Carmen’s mission is to solve the crime of course (When a man’s woman’s partner is killed he’s she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”), but it would not be a noir if Carmen did not have some personal struggles going on as she struggles to figure out whodunit. There are parental issues, which might not be quite noir-ish, but a dark episode from her past stalks her, which certainly is. And there are some romantic bits as well, which definitely fit. She may have been raised Catholic, but Carmen is no nun. All this serves to make for a rounded character, one we can cheer for. Part of that rounding involves some flaws as well, and not the sort we are used to in our primary investigators.

For example, did Carmen really believe that the boss would disbelieve her if she told him the truth about authorship of The Legendary Lynx? There is a scene in which Harvey gets weird and take off after a working-together session. Holy Tunnel Vision, Batman! No freaking out over that? And she lets Harvey take her notebooks, her primary and unbacked up material? Even the Daredevil wasn’t that blind. There was something else, of no real consequence, that really bothered me. There is a scene which entails Carmen walking from the East Side to the West Side of Manhattan without any mention of passing through Central Park, which is directly in the path, or walking around it. That just seemed odd, particularly coming from a guy who lives in New York. Not really a spoiler, just wanted to spare most folks this aside.
I used to live on the West side of Manhattan, for most of the 1970s, West 81st Street, then West 76th Street, and walked across the park to my grad school on the East Side. Walked back, too, so, speaking from experience. Like I said, no consequence.

One thing you will definitely enjoy is the inclusion in the book of seventeen pages from The Legendary Lynx. They presage events in the chapters that follow. It is a perfect addition to the book.

Music permeates, including nods to the venues of the day, The Village Vanguard, CBGBs, The Bottom Line, et al. Her roommate, Molly, is a musician, rubbing shoulders with rising stars, like Springsteen and Patti Smith.

Secret identity covers a fair bit of territory, an homage to a beloved industry in a dire time, a noir mystery, a look at the city where he now lives, when it was on its knees, while saluting the music of the time and the creators of the comic book industry, warts and all. And he tosses in a comic book for good measure. This is a fun read of the first order, even for those, like me, who may not be comic nerds. In producing this very entertaining novel, Alex Segura has revealed his true identity, at least for those who did not already know. Clearly, Seguro really arrived on this planet not in a Miami hospital ward, but probably somewhere in the Everglades, his ship originating in a galaxy far, far away. He may or may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he clearly wields otherworldly power as a writer. POW!

If it got published, I’d be ghostwriting it. . . . I mean, I’d get a shot, and if it did well we’d reveal my involvement, but. . . .”
“You’d be anonymous at first? Like his secret partner?”
Carmen waited a beat, letting her mind skim over what she already knew to be true. She nodded at Molly, hoping her friend couldn’t see her resigned expression in the dark.
“Is that what you want?” Molly asked. “To live your dream—in secret?”
Carmen felt her stomach twist into a painful, aching knot.

Review posted – March 11, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of Secret Identity from, well, I can‘t tell you, in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an e-galley copy.

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

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

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

Interviews
—–Crime Reads – SHOP TALK: ALEX SEGURA IS ALWAYS WRITING, EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT by Eli Cranor
Mostly on Segura’s process and insane productivity
—–The Big Thrill – Up Close: Alex Segura by April Snellings
—–Three Rooms Press – Stand Up Comix:> An Interview with Author Alex Segura

Item of Interest from the author
—–Segura’s Sub-stack

Items of Interest
—–When a man’s partner is killed…
—–pooka

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

book cover

On the lawn, something moved across the surface of the grass. The touch of a footprint. Inside the house, one of the cupboard doors opened in the dark kitchen, groaning softly into the silence.
In a bedroom window a shape appeared, shadowy and indistinct. The blur, perhaps, of a face. A handprint touched the bedroom window, the palm pressing into the glass. For a second, it was there, pale and white, though there was no one to see.
The wind groaned in the eaves. The handprint faded. The figure moved back into the darkness. And the house was still once more.

“Being a girl is the best,” she said, “because no one ever believes you’d do something bad. People think you’ll do nothing, which means you can do anything. I’ll show you.”

1977 – Claire Lake, Oregon. Two men have been brutally murdered in separate incidents, roadside, no obvious motive. But a witness did see someone leaving the scene of one of the crimes. The description matches a local, a young woman generally regarded as odd. Beth Greer is standoffish, young, attractive, and rich. Parents both dead, Mom from an auto accident in a tree, Dad from a close encounter with fired round, in the kitchen. She has a taste for alcohol and keeping human connections ephemeral. When she is not out at bars and clubs, she is mostly at home, Greer House, not the happiest place on Earth. The bullets that did in the two randos just happen to match the one that laid Julian Greer out on the kitchen floor, a murder, BTW, that was never solved. You can see why the police might be a tad suspicious.

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Simone St. James – image from her site – credit: Lauren Perry

2017 – Shea Collins is 29, newly (ok, almost a year) divorced. Has worked reception in a doctor’s office in downtown Claire Lake for five years. But her real self is invested in her website, The Book of Cold Cases. Shea is a true crime blogger, been at it for ten years, is certainly up on local crime legends, so she notices when one walks into the office, Beth Greer, forty years after she was believed to be The Lady Killer of tabloid fame, forty years after she was acquitted of the murders, which were never solved. Most think she was guilty. Beth pursues Greer, who, to her great shock, agrees to be interviewed.

And the game is afoot. There are two timelines at work, contemporary and back-then. In the 2017 line, Shea interviews Beth at Greer House, even though the place creeps her out. The décor is from the era of Beth’s parents, which is off-putting enough, but there is clearly a lot more going on there. Objects move without obvious cause. A mysterious girl appears outside a window. Shea does not feel safe there, but the lure of getting the whole story from Beth is too much to resist so she keeps coming back. Also, she and Beth seem to be forming a friendship. Beth may or may not be a killer, but Shea likes her, is fascinated by her. In the earlier time, we follow Beth’s childhood, stretching back to 1960, as events that lead up to the killings are revealed, bit by bit.

The alternate perspectives, Shea’s in first person and Beth’s in third, are not evenly divided. We get more Shea than Beth (26 chapters to 18, if you must know), with a few Others tossed in. They do not alternate in a steady format, but streak at times for one or the other.

Shea has some dark visions from her own past she has had to deal with for the last twenty years. At age nine she was abducted, but managed to escape with her life. The next girl her abductor took was not so lucky. Helps explain why she takes the bus and is reluctant to get into cars. Helps explain why she is way security conscious. Also, helps explain why she is reluctant to date again.

“Do you know how many serial killers dated lonely women in their everyday lives? Some divorcée who just wants companionship from a nice man? She thinks she’s won the dating lottery, and meanwhile he’s out there on a Sunday afternoon, dumping bodies. And now we’re supposed to use internet apps, where someone’s picture might not even be real. People are lying about their faces.”

It took a long time after we met on Match for me to discover my now wife’s history of serial criminal activity, so I get that.

There are mysteries to be solved and in the best True Crime fashion, Shea, along with her sort-of partner-in-crime-solving, PI Michael De Vos, dig into each of the questions as they arise. Very cozy mystery style. There is even a retired detective who offers a bit of help, continuing the cozy format. Of course, there are other elements that make this less of a cozy, the supernatural, for one, and a little more on-screen violence than might fit in that format. In fact The Book of Cold Cases crosses many genre lines, could be gothic, thriller, horror, suspense, or mystery, with a bit of romance tossed in for good measure. This particular mix of genre-salad was not always the Simone St. James brand.

I wrote five books set in 1920’s England, and while I loved writing them, I never intended to write about one period for the rest of my life. I wanted to flex my writing muscles and write something set in the USA—something that had two timelines, one of them contemporary. Creatively, I wanted a new goal and a new challenge while still writing a Simone St. James book. I got my wish! – from the Criminal Element interview

St James has stuck with that. Her first America-set thriller, The Broken Girls (2018), offers a split timeline, 1950/2014, the story centering on a deserted and reputedly haunted school for girls, and a journalist looking into the death of her sister twenty years before. The Sun Down Motel (2020) takes on a haunted establishment in upstate New York, splits between 1982 and 2017, and includes a 35-years-ago missing aunt, a niece eager to dig up the truth, and a slew of killings and disappearances that really need looking into. Keeping the string going, The Book of Cold Cases splits between 1977 and 2017, includes an amateur investigator (a blogger this time), some contemporary frights, some historical killings, and a haunted house. (I did ask her what she was planning to haunt next, but St. James declined to spill)

Strong primary characters can carry a book if the plot is well-thought out, and that would have been enough here. But St. James’ secondary characters were quite good, although we could have used even more of some of them. Detective Black, retired now, but involved in the 1977 investigations, was a strong presence. Shea’s PI, Michael De Vos, was off screen too much, as he was quite engaging when he was in view. I enjoyed the parallelism of relationships, Beth with Black and Shea with Michael.

Gripes – The only real blogging work we see Shea do (yes, there is a session or two noted, but only very much in passing) is on Beth’s case. Might have been a good thing to get a stronger, more fleshed out, look at how Shea has been spending her nights, which would have included a lot more on-line than live and in person investigations. Claire Lake, the town, did not feel strongly realized. This was more than made up for, however, by the seriously creepy haunted house, and the powerful presence of Beth Greer.

Lest you suspect there is some actual true crime in this true crime tale, I asked SSJ that question on her FB page, and she replied, “the cases in the book were all entirely fictional.” So you True Crime obsessives can stop looking for real-world sparks for this one. And as for ghosts in the real world, she has never had a spectral experience. St. James likes putting literary Easter eggs in her work, so keep an eye out for those.

Bottom line is that The Book of Cold Cases is a fun page-turner that delivers what it promises, murder mysteries, an intrepid investigator, some fascinating characters, a taste of the 70s, and a large dollop of the other-worldly. It is even a bit scary. I have a pretty high bar for such things, but there was one moment in which I got chills and the hair on my arms stood up at attention. That is one more than usually occurs, so, kudos. It sustains tension throughout, making you want to either blast through ASAP, or, my preferred approach, savor the fun in relatively low-dose portions night after night. In either case this is a fun, spooky, engaging read that is well worth your time, and should provide most readers with some chills.

some places hold you so that you can’t get free. They squeeze you like a fist.

Review posted – March 4, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Book of Cold Cases from Berkley in return for a fair review, and keeping quiet about a few things. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Simone St. James is the nom de plume of Simone Seguin, of Toronto. She worked for many years in TV, for a Canadian sports network, but not as a writer. She worked on budgets. She says she knows nothing about sports, despite the gig. It was only after she had had multiple novels published that she ditched budgeting to become a full-time writer. She had endured six years of rejections before her first book was published. The Book of Cold Cases is her eighth novel.

Interviews
—–Criminal Element – 2018 – Q&A with Simone St. James, Author of The Broken Girls for The Broken Girls by Angie Barry
—–The Inside Flap – 2020 – Ep. 98 How To Spy On People With Simone St. James by Dave Medicus, Andrew Dowd, and Laura Medicus – 1:36:48 – begins about 30:00 – to 58:00

Item of Interest from the author
—–Indigo – Sample – 1st four chapters

Music
—–George Thorogood – Bad to the Bone

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

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

book cover

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

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

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

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Dana Schwartz – image from her site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – February 11, 2022

Publication date – January 18, 2022

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

Items of Interest from the author
—–Discussion Questions

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

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

How to Find Your Way Home by Katy Regan

book cover

…here begins one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.

Do we choose our homes? Physically, sure. As adults we can move here or there. Does a chick choose its nest? We are not necessarily bolted to our birthplaces, but they are our first homes, and that initial setting is a very powerful thing, rich with association, memory, and attachment, particularly if we remain there more than just a few years. Many, maybe most people move away, significantly away. We may return annually to see family, or not. Maybe the places to which we relocate become truer homes for us. I shudder, for example, at the thought of ever again living in the neighborhood where I was raised. While I love the city, that particular part of it holds no attraction for me. I got out as fast as I could, and never wanted to be back there again. But for many, like Dorothy Gale, there is a primal bond with that ground. There’s no place like home for Stephen Nelson, as well, as he carries deep ties to the place where he was raised. He has been away from it for a very long time.

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Katy Regan – from her Facebook pages

Emily Nelson has different rootedness issues. A connection to her brother is where home is for Emily. Stephen was an amazing big brother, about five years older. Delighted to have her there, eager to teach her about what excited him in the world, which was mostly birds, an interest his father shared and nurtured in his children. And she was always thrilled to be with “Deebie.” They found a particular Eden-ic magic in the avian-rich marshlands very near their home on Canvey Island, (Essex’s answer to the Mississippi Delta) even camping out there sometimes. She is concerned about his survival.

Their allegiance gained significance when their mother, unhappy with her exurban experience, ditched their father for what she’d hoped would be a more satisfying life. Sadly, her new mate seemed to have a bug up his bum about Stephen, always criticizing him, never recognizing Stephen’s strengths, and generally being a total horse’s ass of a stepfather. The sibs really needed to stick together when they were with Mum and Mitch. But something happened when they were still kids. Mitch was severely injured, and Stephen was jailed, from his teens into his twenties. Once out, things did not go well. He has been living rough for the last fifteen years.

We meet Emily in the today of the novel, 2018. She is 31, living in London, a housing officer in the council’s homeless department. She has had a series of relationships, (failure to nest?) the latest of which is with an architect, but:

She realizes that James will not last, no one will until she can resolve the huge hole in her from the loss of Stephen.

They have been out of touch since shortly after his release from prison. She has been desperate to find him for some time. When she hears his voice in her office one day, the chase is on. She invites him to move in with her.

The story moves along two time tracks. First is the contemporary, as Emily searches for Stephen, wanting to reconnect with him, wanting to help him, wanting to get her brother back after a very long absence. This current-day look is split between Emily’s first-person and Stephen’s third-person POVs. The second time track is a slow unraveling of the past, from Emily’s birth to the tragic event that defines the story. What happened in their lives as kids? What forged their bond? What ultimately caused Stephen to be sent to jail? Why has Stephen been homeless for so long? This is told in ten chapters, named for birds, telling stories from their childhood involving specific birds, or breeds, or just using bird imagery. Stork, for example, is about Emily’s arrival. Mother Duck tells of a Make Way for Ducklings event. Cockatoo refers to someone’s hairstyle.

Stephen struggles with hope, whether to keep on or to fly the coop on possibility. Lord knows, he has had plenty of reasons to. His father has been willing to keep lines of communication open, if with less than total warmth. But his mother, unhappily, stuck with caring for the husband whose tetraplegia is the reason Stephen was imprisoned, is not so eager. Stephen has learned to survive on the streets, kept going by his love of birds. He has artistic ability, and picks up some money selling drawings of them.

Regan first volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless when she was 17.

My favorite bit of the shift was to sit down after we’d served breakfast and chat. What surprised me then, besides the sheer resilience these people possessed, was how little there was between my life—a “normal life”—and theirs. A few wrong turns, a relationship breakup, some bad luck was all it seemed to take for you to wind up sleeping on the streets and relying on charity to eat. Most of all, what I learned there (as well as from my research for How to Find Your Way Home) was that the difference between those who managed to dodge homelessness and those who slipped through the net was just that: too-big holes in the net. If you’d burned the bridges of your support network or had been abandoned by the people in it, you were out of luck. When I became a writer, I promised myself I would one day write a book telling the story of a homeless person. – from the Bok Club kit

Bird imagery permeates the novel. In fact, there is enough avian material here to fill a king-size comforter. It is as lovely as one of those too, the feathered supporting cast bolstering the issues among the feather-free characters. A skein of geese, for example, is explained as group members taking turns bearing the brunt of the migratory lead. Swifts faithfully return to the same nesting site every year, maintaining their pair-bond for life. Although birds permeate the novel, the bird-title chapters focus on this imagery most pointedly.

Another motif to keep an eye on is windows. Stephen is an outsider from childhood. Emily feels like one as well. Windows always mark a separation, and what you see through them may not tell a true or a full tale.

That’s what you’d see, if you looked through the window: four thirty-something friends, “upwardly mobile” themselves I suppose, having dinner, chatting, having fun on a Saturday night, me in the middle in my orange top that says “Happy Days” on it. But I’m not happy.

Sometimes, windows offer frightening views.

A dark, tall shadow flashed across the kitchen window and I jumped half out of my skin.

Stephen and Emily have some serious issues between them to contend with, in addition to the challenges that both face with the wider universe. Stephen has good reason to be cautious about the world. He may have been sent to prison for a crime as a teen but he seems a pretty decent sort as a served-his-time thirty-something. Emily may have cut herself off from the world of love emotionally, if not physically, but we come to see that this originates in pain. She seems to have a good heart. So, rooting for these two is easy. And there is a very satisfying twist toward the end. HTFYWH was moving enough that my notes include three instances of TEARS!. There is also some exquisite, lyrical writing here.

I suppose there a few loose feathers that might make one sneeze a bit. Stephen seemed to spend an extreme number of years living on the street. Really? No social service types managed to coral him into a rehab program, maybe got him set up with a social worker. Possible? Oh, sure. But, still. Could Emily really have afforded a London flat in a nice neighborhood on a public employee’s income? Also, the wrap-up seemed a bit speedy. Without spoiling anything, situations were presented that seemed lacking in sufficient preparatory support. And yes, there was certainly a large volume of feathery references. Some might find that a downer. I rather liked it. I will spare you the Emily Dickinson quote, but it is certainly an undercurrent here as Stephen’s ability to carry on is bolstered by his love of birds and birding.

Louise Erdrich this ain’t, but it is a lovely, warm-hearted novel. That said, I found myself always very eager to return to my bedtime book home for the week and a half for which I was able to stretch this out. Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like it.

Stephen loved the sounds as much as he loved the space out here: the wind, creeping through the grasses, that reminded Stephen of rain, when it first, softly, begins to fall; the hum of traffic coming from the A130; and the occasional train, slicing through the countryside with its ghostly sigh. Stephen liked these reminders that the town was nearby. It was as if England and all it had to offer was right here, at the edge-lands—a world within a world. And it had been rolled out like a map, for him to run free over.

Review posted – February 4, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of How To Find Your Way Home from Berkley in return for directions. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Katy Regan was brought up in a seaside town in northern England. She studied at the University of Leeds before moving to London, where she worked as a journalist and as a commissioning editor at Marie Claire magazine. How To Find Your Way Home is her fifth book.

Items of Interest from the author
—–A map of locations in the novel
—–Book Club Kit

Songs/Music
—–The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – chapter 6
—–Robin S – Show Me Love – chapter 13

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

book cover

“Between life and death there is a library,’ [Mrs Elm] said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. But how much examination can one life stand? Nora Seed has reached bottom. Her cat is dead. And her philosophy degree is at least as dead as Schrödinger’s cat. She is 35, and has been working in a music shop in her home town, Bedford, (not Bedford Falls) for almost thirteen years. Nora’s boss tells her “I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.” She was in a band, with her brother, but bailed when the going got too promising. She was also a primo swimmer as a teen, one of the fastest in the country. The pressure put her off it. She had also backed out of her wedding to Dan…with two days notice.

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Matt Haig – Image from Independent – photo by Kan Lailey

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Haig counts down for us the hail of misery descending on poor Nora, the bad choices, the disappointments, the misfortune. Alienating those closest to you does not leave much of a support network, a needed bolster in a tough time. As with George Bailey, we are also introduced to the positive bits in her life. Expect to see them pop up later. But Nora has decided that she is not much use to anyone, that there is no real future for her. Her self image is that of a black hole, collapsing in on herself.

There was an old musician’s cliché, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all.

She decides to continue the process to its logical conclusion, and has a go at that.

[I seem to have been on a tear in 2021, reading books that deal with people considering ending it all before life gets even worse. Should We Stay of Should We Go? by Lionel Shriver, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time look at older sorts considering the dark deed. Younger folks struggle to cope with the damage in their lives, some of which has been self-inflicted, in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful, and now this one. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I may be getting on but I have had my three COVID shots and am not exactly contemplating a self-propelled early exit. Too many books left to read. Just seems odd, somehow.]

But then she wakes, or something, (apparently, she is not dead yet) has a look around, and finds her way through the mist to a modest-sized building with a clock on it, set to midnight. Mrs Elm, a librarian who’d helped her out as a student, is there to greet her. And the game is on.

For a decade I’ve been wanting to do something about parallel lives. Obviously, this is a well-trodden territory in film and literature, so I thought I didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. It had been done so well, so many times. And it was really just getting the concept of the library. What I liked about the concept of the library is that it managed to be a neat plot device, but it was also the center of what I was trying to do on the philosophical side of it…someone who’d reached this point where they’ve run out of options, everything’s bleak.


Between life and death you get to see all these different branches of how things could have been. So I liked the library because it was literally and metaphorically what I was trying to sort of do with the story as well as it being a little love letter to libraries, because libraries, I suppose, are our portals to other places anyway. – from The Strand interview

The Midnight Library offers immersion of a different sort than the experiences one might expect at a more usual book-lending emporium. Nora can select one element of her life she would change. A book appears applying the specific change and Nora gets to live that life. There is technobabble in here about the multiverse and all possible branches being true in some universe. Fine, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Skim.

Libraries have more than a few books, so Nora gets to make more than a few decisions, live more than a few lives. What if she had stuck with swimming? What if she had stayed with the band? What if she hadn’t bailed on her wedding? What if? What if? What if?

The appeal of the novel is that it makes manifest the thoughts that all of us have had. How would my life have been different if I had done this rather than that, chose to focus on this area of study or skill rather than on another? What if I had asked that girl for a date instead of chickening out? What if I had chosen some other boy than the one I chose? What if I had tried harder to save the relationship instead of calling it quits? What if I had called it quits sooner instead of staying in an unhappy situation? What if I had not made that deal with the dodgy Colombian drug dealer? Wait, what? (Oh, never mind) Go ahead, pick a change, get a book, find out.

Personally, I am pretty Zen about the whole what-if scenario. I am completely convinced that had any of my larger life choices been different, I would have wound up in similar or worse circumstances. Maybe I would not have learned the lessons I learned at place B that I learned at place A. Maybe I would not have grown in certain ways with person C that I did with person D. It is possible, of course, that my life might have been dramatically more successful than it has been, which is not terribly. But could I have handled success, even if it had? I expect the universe is a leveler, in terms of personal choices, anyway. We are who we are and our choices reflect that person. Different choices would reflect that person as well, even if the map of our lives might have been redrawn, presenting different challenges from the ones we have already lived through.

There’s a certain formula to tales of this sort. Character is miserable in his/her life, but gets a chance to see how it could have been different, maybe fulfills all their fantasies, or sees how much worse it might have been, and arrives at the end ok with life as it is, more or less. Maybe with a greater understanding, appreciation for what is. Some offer a single, long view of that alternate possibility like George Bailey’s, in It’s A Wonderful Life or Frank Cross in Scrooged, not to mention the original on which that one was based. Others offer iterations like a programming loop: DO whatever UNTIL some condition is met. EXIT. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors has to relive a single day over and over until he figures out how to be a better person. In Palm Springs, Nyles is caught in a time loop with a similar path to salvation. Speaking of loops, they seem to have been in my reading list this year too. The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke and Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey pop to mind. Maybe the universe wants me to be on the lookout for a time-loop story in which older people consider ending things?

At least Nora gets to have different days, places, and relationships. Of course, it’s tough keeping up when you enter every new sphere not knowing your specific history in it. Where do I work? Is that my kid? I live in this house? Cool. Or not. The stress of trying to figure out who she is in each iteration is both comedic and nerve-wracking. Whenever Nora knows (feels, really) that a particular life is not quite the one for her, she dissipates back to the library for another go.

One life Nora never got to have was being a male. Almost, though. The character of Nora began as a male in draft #1. Haig felt that it was not working, that he was writing too much about himself. He wanted his lead to very much NOT be him. Switching to a female lead took care of that quite nicely. The freedom he felt with the change allowed him to actually insert more of his personal concerns into the character without it really seeming to be him.

One piece that is very much about him is that he gave up piano lessons, even though he was pretty good, at age 13, caving to mindless peers who considered piano lessons so uncool. He imagines an Elton John version of himself in a parallel Universe. In a more serious vein, Haig struggled with depression as a younger man, and knows what it feels like to lose hope.

Nora’s alternate lives are diverse, expressing wishes any of us might have had. There are the grand ones of fame and huge success, but others of a much more modest scope, like owning a pub with your partner, salving ordinary regrets. Some focus on doing good, like studying global warming as a glaciologist. Some of the lives are pretty decent, but are any of them the right one for Nora, the right combination of the same, yet different, keeping the good, while minimizing the awful?

I have only one particular gripe with the book. When Nora finds herself in each of the parallel universes what is supposed to have happened to the Nora that was in that universe before the peripatetic Nora arrived? Did she die? When Nora winks out of each of the lives she leaves, does the Nora who was there before wink back into existence? Is she like the understudy who steps in for a time, to be replaced when the star is all better? I know this is fantasy, and not science fiction, so I should just shut up and get over it, but it bugged me. Thankfully not enough to detract (much) from my enjoyment of the book.

I feel like if you’re putting something out into the universe, why not offer people some sort of nourishment, or hope, or usefulness? Or all the things that are frowned upon in some sort of academic quarters. Why not make people feel good?

The book has been a huge success, selling gazillions and making Haig bags of money. Movie rights are sold. Good for him. In a world impacted way too much by darkness and cynicism, it is a welcome thing to have authors eager to spread some sunshine. Nora Seed is a decent person, not fabulous, mind you, but relatable. And she faces many difficult choices in her many parallel lives, well, really, one choice, many times, stay or go. It is not hard to root for her to find the right mix of ingredients in a life somewhere, that will allow her to escape the increasingly unsatisfactory option of death. If The Midnight Library offers you some impetus to consider the choices you have made in your life, and wonder maybe what alternate experiences might have resulted, so much the better. Or you could simply enjoy it as an engaging, heart-warming tale. And you don’t even have to choose one or the other.

Equidistant. Not aligned to one bank or the other.
That was how she had felt most of her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go, which path to commit to without regret.

Review posted – December 10, 2021

Publication date – September 29, 2020

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

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

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

Interviews
—–Strand Book Store – Matt Haig with Kristin Hannah: The Midnight Library– video – 1:02:49 – definitely check this one out
—–Independent – Matt Haig: ‘I ignored a phone call from Meghan Markle’ by Olivia Peter

Songs/Music
—–Cher – If I Could Turn Back Time
—–Jim Croce – If I could Save Time in a Bottle

Books noted in the review, and one not noted
—– The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons – Life has been very disappointing. An elderly Eudora is determined to see herself off, until life intervenes and offers reasons to reconsider
—–How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – if you lived forever might you welcome death?
—–Should We Stay of Should We Go?<!– by Lionel Shriver – a couple, many years ahead, considering whether to check out at age 80
—–
Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Shelby struggled, following a trauma, to re-start her life after shutting it down for several years, which included a suicide attempt
—–The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke – too spoilerish to tell
—–Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey – Thora and Santi experience multiple lives, trying to figure out their relationship and how they can step out of the loop. It also features a prominent public clock.
—–A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – skinflint Ebenezer gets some fresh perspectives on his life – full text with illustrations, from Gutenberg
—–Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – if there is a bigger homage to libraries and librarians, I do not know what it might be

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews